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Book Review: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

‘Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…’

I’ve had Harlem Shuffle on my back list for at least year, I think the fact I’ve actually read it within 12 months is an achievement, I mean, there’s book that have been on there for years.

Set in the 60s, Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead tells the story of Ray Carney.

On the one hand, he’s a respectable business owner in Harlem, he runs a furniture store and is desperate to break away from his father’s reputation.

Carney dreams of bigger home for his family – Elizabeth is expecting their second child – her parents don’t think Carney is good enough for their daughter.

Carney plays the role of respectable businessman providing for his family, but all is not as it seems because, as alluded to above, Carney is a little bent…

Is it so bad if he occasionally offloads jewellery he knows has been stolen?

Is it so bad if he allows his cousin Freddie to talk him into his latest scheme?

Carney’s about to find out that Freddie, just like when they were kids, is going to get him into an awful lot of trouble….

“Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – the ‘Waldorf of Harlem’ – and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do, after all. Now Ray has to cater to a new clientele, one made up of shady cops on the take, vicious minions of the local crime lord, and numerous other Harlem lowlifes”.

Told in three parts, Harlem Shuffle follows Carney on three ‘capers’, all of which are linked and start with Freddie dragging him into the plan to rob the Hotel Theresa. What Carney doesn’t envisage is that Freddie’s latest scheme will drag him deeper and deeper into trouble.

At the heart of this story, is a man in a constant battle with two parts of himself. The one who longs to be fully legit who only wants to provide for his family and the side of him who will break the law so he can provide. All the while, he works to keep his double life a secret. It’s an interesting exploration into how far he’s willing to go.

It looks at corruption within the system – Carney has to deal with bent coppers, corrupt businessmen and whole host of people who feel he should “know his place”.

There’s a host of conniving characters you don’t want to cross. You know that you’re watching a car crash unfold. You know that whenever Freddie shows up, Carney is going to be left with another shit storm to deal with and you know he’s going to clear it up out of love and loyalty for Freddie. Each act builds that tension as Carney finds himself falling deeper and deeper into a world of crime.

It’s set against a backdrop of racism, classicism and social unrest. As a black man, Carney has constant barriers put in his way as he strives to prosper. Not only does he face racial divisions but class divisions too. I liked seeing how this played out in each act and how Carney handled those barriers and the people trying to stand in his way.

Whitehead brings 1960s Harlem to life, I could picture it all, I loved the setting and felt as though I was walking the streets with Carney.

It was a well-executed story, I liked how it was split into three acts, the characters were developed, it was really well written. The three ‘capers’ were different, I didn’t feel as though I knew how each act was going to conclude itself.

Harlem Shuffle has all the elements of fantastic book…

…And yet, despite all of this, I didn’t really like it. 

I struggled to get into, it didn’t hold my attention and I found myself bored in places.

I stuck with it and can see why people think it’s a great read and why they rate it so highly, it just didn’t hit the mark for me.

Maybe it was a bad choice while in a bit of reading slump, maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind or maybe it was simply the fact that it is nothing like any of my usual reads – not a bad thing, I like variety. Who knows, I just didn’t like it…..

Win some, lose some I guess.

radiosarahc View All

Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm

15 thoughts on “Book Review: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead Leave a comment

  1. Great review! I hadn’t heard of this one before but I have to say I’m intrigued – although I’m sorry you didn’t much enjoy it! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.


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