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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

It is hot in this 1960s Harlem summer where we meet Ray Carney for the first time. A respectable furniture salesman, Carney is well-liked in his local community, making the living rooms of young families and old couples more comfortable places to be in with low prices and generous instalment payments. For now his own growing family is confined to a small apartment with no air condition, but he hopes to be able to change their situation soon – not least to escape the disapproving eye of his mother-in-law who always wanted more for her daughter. But could you truly wish for more than a kindness and honesty? And Carney is honest. At least most of the time. At least compared to his infamously crooked father and trouble-making cousin Freddie. At least until Freddie once again involves him in his plans. Freddie meets a crew plotting to rob Harlem’s most prominent hotel, the Theresa, but the heist doesn’t go to plan and Carney finds himself in the centre of the chaos trying to keep his business clean while he attracts a new, rather dubious, clientele. Too enmeshed in the world of the Harlem underground, Ray Carney struggles to keep his respectable family father personality separate from and untainted by Ray-the-crook. But he cannot deny that the extra money coming in does help… Once he has stepped toe into this other world, Carney cannot avoid unfortunate circumstances that require not quite so legal solutions to avoid serious danger.

Now, with Underground Railroad and Nickelboys Colson Whitehead has established himself as one of my favourite authors and with Harlem Shuffle he gives the historical fiction novel he masters so well a different spin. This novel is entertaining and light-hearted but still addresses social issues such as race, power, and corruption and offers yet another lesson in black history. Harlem and its inhabitants are drawn in such a loving detail, it is easy to spend time with them even without the adventurous promise of the heist. But herein lies the novel’s shortcoming, the action is missing. Whitehead creates the suspense for the coming heist, but then his writing loses some of its power until the crime has been committed and Carney finds himself dealing with its aftermath – which does contain brilliant scenes and observations. But despite being perhaps a bit too light on the plot at times, Harlem Shuffle wins you over with Colson Whitehead’s joyous, sparkling writing, the palpable atmosphere he creates and his descriptions of neighbourhoods I have never visited but now feel like I know intimately. It might not be the book to pick up if you’re looking for a true page-turning crime story, but if you’re in the market for a multi-layered work of prose Whitehead’s newest release surely cannot disappoint.

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