Ta-Nehisi Coates is an American author and journalist who is perhaps best known for his non-fiction. His book Between The World And Me explores America’s racial history in the form of a letter to his teenage son and won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2015.
The Water Dancer is his first work of fiction. Published in 2019 it was described by Oprah Winfrey as ‘One of the best books I have ever read in my entire life. I haven’t felt this way since I first read Beloved . . .’ . Wow – talk about setting high expectations!
From the blurb:
Hiram Walker is born into bondage on a Virginia plantation. But he is also born gifted with a mysterious power that he won’t discover until he is almost a man, when he risks everything for a chance to escape. One fateful decision will carry him away from his makeshift plantation family – his adoptive mother, Thena, a woman of few words and many secrets, and his beloved, angry Sophia – and into the covert heart of the underground war on slavery.
Hidden amidst the corrupt grandeur of white plantation society, exiled as guerrilla cells in the wilderness, buried in the coffin of the deep South and agitating for utopian ideals in the North, there exists a widespread network of secret agents working to liberate the enslaved. Hiram joins their ranks and learns fast but in his heart he yearns to return to his own still-enslaved family, to topple the plantation that was his first home. But to do so, he must first master his unique power and reclaim the story of his greatest loss.
Propulsive, transcendent and blazing with truth, The Water Dancer is a story of oppression and resistance, separation and homecoming. Ta-Nehisi Coates imagines the covert war of an enslaved people in response to a generations-long human atrocity – a war for the right to life, to kin, to freedom.
The book’s opening is intriguing:
“And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south.
Looking back at it now, I know what it means. When I first read it, I wasn’t at all sure. I found the first part of the novel to be pretty baffling. But the writing is so very beautiful that I was keen to read on – it is one of those books where you can simply enjoy the language and the overall reading experience, always expecting that comprehension will dawn at some point.”
The ‘I’ here is main character Hiram. He is immediately someone you want to spend more time with. His story, past and present, is a key part of the book’s pull:
“I was a strange child. I talked before I walked, though I never talked much, because more than anything, I watched and remembered. I would hear others speak, but I did not so much hear them as see them, their words taking form before me as pictures, chains of colors, lines, textures, and shapes that I could store inside of me. And it was my gift to, at a moment’s beckoning, retrieve the images and translate them back into the exact words with which they had been conjured.”
But perhaps the main reason why I found myself continually drawn back to these pages was the unexpected and unusual combination of Coates’ beautiful language and magical realism contrasted with the story’s core issue: the horrific brutality of slavery.
I have seen many reviews of this book which criticise Coates’ choice here; these readers found his style too whimsical for such a serious subject. But I have also heard other reviewers saying that this approach helped them to stick with the narrative and cope with the brutal realities which which it deals.
I must admit I found it took a bit of getting used to. It was worth the effort though, because once I was in the flow of the story, I found it to be completely readable and absorbing. I felt that the novel’s magical realism provided a very effective means of focusing on the characters as individuals, and not simply as symbolic representatives of the wider history of slavery. The savage cruelty of slavery is ever-present and never diminished by this approach. Indeed, I think it makes the story all the more powerful as the reader travels with those characters, breathlessly experiencing the highs and lows of their journey, and thus becoming increasingly invested in finding answers to the novel’s various mysteries and questions.
This is a novel which combine all the best elements of storytelling. It is not an easy read, but that is because it is not in any way obvious or cliché. Coates has created something unique and special and I hope that someone has picked up the screen rights – it would make an amazing Cloud Atlas-esque film. Meanwhile, I am already looking forward to reading it again. 🙂
With grateful thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.