The Water Dancer: Sharply moving but also oddly distant

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is, of course, supremely well-known, and justifiably so, for his non-fiction, whether that be his essays/columns, or his long-form works such as We Were Eight Years in Power or Between the World and Me. Now he’s out with his first fiction work, The Water Dancer (2019), a blend of realism and the supernatural set in the antebellum period. While Coates’ already-documented strengths as a writer are evident, particularly on a sentence level, the book does suffer from typical debut novel issues, though it still carries an emotional power in many places.

The novel opens in pre-Civil War Virginia, specifically on the dying Walker plantation of Lockless whose master has two sons. One is his white son by marriage, Maynard: a feckless, vulgar, ignorant young man whose many flaws are in stark contrast to his slave half-brother Hiram — intelligent, well-read, and blessed with a perfect memory (save for one important gap). Despite the clear difference in ability, Maynard of course is slated to be the heir while Hiram, who naïvely dreamt of more when he was brought into the house and educated, is to be his half-brother’s slave, watcher, and guide: “You have to protect him … Mind my boy.” Awakened to reality by this and by what he learns from other slaves whose lives were not as sheltered as his own — Thena, the woman who took him in when his mother was sold; Sophia, unwilling “mistress” to Hiram’s uncle; and others — and further prompted by the carriage accident that kills his half-brother, Hiram decides to run with Sophia.

I won’t go into detail as to what happens next, but generally, and not necessarily in this order, Hiram finds himself an agent of the Underground Railroad, is imprisoned by slave catchers, meets Harriet Tubman, is betrayed by someone he trusted, must abandon at least for a while those he loves, lives for a time in Philadelphia, and tries to bring others out of slavery and into freedom. Intertwined amongst all this are two inter-related narrative arcs. One involves that strange gap in his otherwise perfect memory; he cannot recall his mother and so one storyline is his slow realization that what is missing is not gone but remains to be recalled when he is able to face it. The other arc involves the magical realism element of the tale, the ability of Conduction, the magical talent of teleportation told of in stories. Hiram has the ability — it saved his life in the accident that killed his half-brother and is the reason the Underground Railroad is so interested in him — but he cannot call upon it at will nor guide it when it does work. Part of the story, therefore, involves his attempts to control his ability, which he eventually works out will not happen until he can master his memory and know his past as well.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

While Coates does not shy away from the brutal physical violence and violation of slavery, the most powerfully affecting aspect of The Water Dancer is the focus on slavery’s destructive effect on family and love, the way it violently rends apart husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and those who could have become lovers in a different world, a better world. This theme runs throughout the novel in its impact on each and every character, showing slavery’s pervasive evil effect.

Nearly as powerful, though its lesser impact is more due to its more abstract nature than to anything else, is the way slavery robbed entire generations of so much: so many lives of course, so much material of course, but as well so much potential history, so much love, so many possible memories. As one character puts it recollecting Saturday nights of dancing: “And it was so much beauty back there. Beautiful girls. Beautiful boys … And I think of all that beauty sometimes, how it withered in them chains.” Withered at the hands of “The Quality” — the white slave owners, just as the land itself has withered underneath them in their careless way wresting all they could from it without regard — “the soil turned to sand.” All turned to barren in white people’s hands.

That stolen cultural memory is mirrored by Hiram’s more personal gap. But Coates is a more complex thinker and writer than this — a simple parallel or a simple and obvious denunciation of slavery’s impact upon the enslaved — and so he dips as well into the impact of slavery upon the slavers. And one such effect is how they have to turn a blind eye to what they do, they have to pretend their edifice is built on land and brick and not blood and bone, and so they too have lost their past. It hasn’t been stolen from them; they deny it to themselves, and so slavers and slaves live in a society wholly unmoored from memory. And as Hiram’s own personal struggle with Conduction shows, one cannot move forward without knowing one’s past.

There are several of those types of metaphors throughout; another strength. As is the sentence level quality of Coates’ writing, the novel filled with sentences and passages worthy of lingering over, from this, the very beginning:

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.

But while The Water Dancer is often powerfully affecting and is written beautifully well on the micro level, one the macro level I had several issues that got in the way of fully enjoying it. The magical realism aspect of Conduction never fully worked for me. The idea is fine, but it felt a clumsy device here, awkwardly introduced and held off, too bluntly connected to Hiram’s need to learn more about himself, not particularly organic to the story. It’s admittedly an unfair comparison since one is a practiced novelist and one is not, but Conduction didn’t, for instance, have the same naturalness or woven-into-the-story sense as the fantastical element of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

And while, as noted, I loved the sentence level construction, the style and tone over time grew monotonous, while the pacing felt too one-note, leading to a sometimes stagnant reading experience and a sense that the book didn’t need all of its 400 or so pages. Finally, while a few of the characters came wonderfully, achingly to life (particularly Thena), many felt like placeholders for concepts. Similarly, a number of the character voices were not sharply distinguished and while there are arguments and discussions, mini-essays in dialog form, I’m not sure there are too many actual conversations. The issues with pacing, plotting, and tone meant a paradoxical reaction that while I was often admiring of the book in the moment I at the same time had to struggle to push onward. It’s rare I put a book down more than once or take more than two days to finish one and this took me nearly two weeks.

That said, The Water Dancer is so beautifully composed at its cellular level, it does so painfully evoke the true cost of slavery beyond the more usual “cinematic” presentation of beatings and whippings, and those mini-essays of dialog are so thoughtful and thought-provoking, that I still think it worth the read. Recommended with caveats.

Published in September 2019. Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known. So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures. This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. I do think he gets a bit of slack for it being his first novel.

    I’m glad you reviewed this. It’s on my Christmas list but I may break down and buy it sooner.

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