Harlem Shuffle, a review by Amy

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Harlem Shuffle
Colson Whitehead

336 pages
DoubleDay Books
Available 9/14/21

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A gritty look at the shuffle between respectable and shady. (Oh the gray areas!) Whitehead’s latest work is part heist novel and part love song to old Harlem, both aspects exceptionally well done.

“He was a wall between the criminal world and the straight world, necessary, bearing the load.”

Carney’s father may have been a criminal, but he longed for the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, temptation was hard to master. Carney is the perfect contradiction. On one hand, he is a respected and responsible business owner. But the other hand dabbled in the shady. Sometimes by his choice. Sometimes because of bad alliances. Whitehead’s depiction of Carney is deeply layered and richly nuanced. I found myself empathizing with him even when his decision confounded me.

But the best character in this novel is unequivocally 1960s Harlem herself. I was transported back to the nostalgia of the place and time. From the corner shops, to the greasy spoons and the dive bars. The streets were full of hustle and bustle. The people were ripe for change. And social upheaval was burgeoning. Whitehead masterfully wove together the emotion of the timeframe, vivid depictions of the neighborhood, and historical events that defined the era.

Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad prove Whitehead’s adeptness at writing, and his writing style shines in this novel as well. However, I felt his use of superfluous detail dragged portions of this book down. Just as I would get lost in the midst of a storyline, greedily devouring words, the scene would get bogged down in unnecessary backstory, stifling my enjoyment. To me, those offshoots derailed rather than adding to the momentum of the plot.

“They had their place and he had his. We all have our station in life- people, stars, cities- and even if no one looked after Carney and no one suspected him capable of much at all, he was going to make himself into something.”

Grimy and full of contradiction, this heist novel packs a punch. It’s worth the read.

Thank you Colson Whitehed, Doubleday Books, and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review an advanced copy of this book.

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