Book Review

Review – Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead


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

To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably-priced furniture, making a life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger and bigger all the time.

See, cash is tight, especially with all those instalment plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace at the furniture store, Ray doesn’t see the need to ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweller downtown who also doesn’t ask questions. 

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.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he starts to see the truth about who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?

Harlem Shuffle is driven by an ingeniously intricate plot that plays out in a beautifully recreated Harlem of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

My Review:

You know when a book demands your attention and your time because it deserves to be savoured, you slow down and you do just that. Harlem Shuffle was a book that I read and savoured over the course of 2 whole weeks. Like Colson Whitehead said, Harlem Shuffle was “a love letter to Harlem” and I couldn’t agree more.

The story was set in Harlem New York in 1950s and 60s and was narrated by Raymond Carney, a black furniture store owner in Harlem. He came from a crooked family but was trying his best to move away from the shady side of the city and was doing very well at running his furnishing business. But as the story went on, you started to wonder was Carney the crook or was he a law abiding citizen?

What’s most extraordinary about this book was the sense of place and time. The vibrant Harlem in the 50s and the 60s was brilliantly presented throughout the book. I could feel the heat, hear the music and sense the hustle through the pages. At times I felt like I was watching a movie (this book definitely need to be made into a movie!), it has the comic affect that I just loved so much. With everything that was going on, e.g. murder(S)!, there was this sense of dark humour mixed within the lines that made the story so charming. Colson Whitehead also so skilfully touched upon the social and political change at the time that focused on racism, drug and crime. It was a book that packed with so much more than just a story.

It was a slow burn book but I think that was Colson Whitehead’s intention. It was a love letter so you have to savour the details within the story and understand what he was really trying to convey and tell you through this story. This was the third book I read by Colson Whitehead and I loved it just as much as the first two.

Thank you so much Fleetreads @fleetreads for this beautiful proof copy. This cover fits the story perfectly!

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