By Ta-Nehisi Coates, A potent story about a man born into bondage with the power to shape his fate
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is Coates’s first foray into writing fiction, and it piqued my curiosity as soon as I heard about it. Yesterday, it was announced as the latest Oprah’s Book Club pick.
Coates is well-known for his books of essays, but I largely read fiction, so I’ve never read anything by him other than occasional articles in The Atlantic. I was excited, then, when I heard about The Water Dancer. It’s a story of a boy born into bondage with mysterious powers, which sounded like a potentially interesting story.
(This review is long. Scroll down to the “Read it or Skip it?” section for the quick and dirty version of this review.)
See the Full Plot Synopsis & Summary for The Vanishing Half (spoilers). For the spoiler-free version:
Hiram Walker is born on an estate called Lockless in Antebellum Virginia. He is a slave, and his mother was sold off when he was young. She remains in his memory mostly as beautiful woman doing a water-dance with a jug propped upon her head.
But Hiram is notably intelligent, has a strangely sharp memory and possesses a power that he doesn’t entirely understand. As he learns to use this power, it will take him on a journey across America to places he’d never dreamed possible. It will also force him to confront his memories and truths about slavery and his life.
In a story that is both stark with realism and adorned with fantasy, Hiram joins the Underground, and he searches for freedom in a life where he and the ones he loves have been born as slaves.
See The Water Dancer on Amazon.
When The Water Dancer begins, apart from a few scenes, it plays out much like much many stories about slavery during the Antebellum Era in America. It is elegantly written, evocative and reveals much about the horrors of slavery.
Then, about a third of the way in, the focus of the book shifts as Hiram begins to discover his powers. The shift is both good and bad. It gives the story room to explore a wider range of ideas, but it also becomes more plot-driven and fantastical, which is where the writing and plotting occasionally suffer. Still, there’s so much discerning thought and insight in this novel that it’s worth overlooking the story’s imperfections.
Coates doesn’t settle for just hammering away at about well-worn things we all know about slavery. He seems well aware that there’s no lack of books, movies and TV shows that focus on the sensational horrors of slavery — of terrible violence, rape and things of that nature. Coates is quick to move past all this.
Instead, he expends his words trying to pry at things few consider, and he dwells on the more nuanced aspects of injustice. Things like how bondage can bring out cruelty in otherwise well-mannered people with just a bit of drink and boredom. Or how someone can be fanatical in fighting slavery, yet with limited empathy for the slaves themselves.
Coates also wrestles with differing views on how a battle should be waged, when revenge is just or to what extent the ends justify the means. And the story highlights how fighting against injustice is not always a morally clear0cut enterprise. When the characters take down a black man who betrayed other slaves, Coates reminds us that the man is still someone who is trapped in the same unjust system as the rest of them.
As the book follows Hiram’s journey, there are so many small insights and nuanced points that Coates makes that I’m not really doing justice to by listing them out here. The point is, The Water Dancer is a book with a lot of important things to say. As it concludes, it comes together in satisfying way, and you will likely feel enriched from having read it.
Book Review: Some Criticisms
As mentioned above though, it’s not a perfect book. While this is technically Hiram’s story, Coates is ultimately the chief protagonist of this story. His voice, his thoughts and his views are what stand at the forefront, and the plot often becomes structured around the best way to highlight thoughts he wants to showcase.
As a result, the narrative occasionally meanders instead of having a clear direction. Especially in the middle parts, at times it seems like you’re wandering in and out of scenes where Coates has a point he wants to make, as opposed to following a story that flows organically.
Because of this, Hiram feels like a very inert character. Even after he is a free man, a lot of the events of the novel are things happening to him, and Hiram is relegated to the role of a narrator. His character’s motivations, while present, are blunted by unnatural plot contrivances and Coates veering off into whatever territory he wants to explore.
Unsurprisingly, the writing itself is strongest at junctures when there’s a specific point Coates is trying to make or an idea he’s trying to explore. You can tell which parts he really cared about because his prose is so deliberate and incisive in those parts, with a careful flowing cadence to his words. Then, there are the other parts. These are generally when he’s trying to move the plot from point A to point B. They can at times be rhythmless and clunky and feel a little careless.
Even while acknowledging the many impressive qualities of Coates’s writing, I have to admit I felt a little frustrated with this book at times. It tested my patience occasionally, and while I’m very glad I read it, I wouldn’t describe it as an effortless read.
Is it Fantasy or Magic Realism?
Not that any of these labels matter, but for the record, I’d say that this is a book with elements of fantasy, not magical realism. There seems to be the idea among literary types that somehow fantasy is “bad” and magical realism is “good”. Because this is a serious literary novel and Ta-Nehisi Coates is undoubtedly a serious literary dude, many have been referring to its use of magic as “magic realism”.
But I don’t buy that fantasy is somehow “worse” or more hack-y than magic realism. Instead, when it comes to fantasy vs. magical realism, I think a better definition is to say that if something magical happens and it’s clear that it’s magic, then it’s fantasy. If not, then it’s magic realism.
In the fantasy genre, magic has clear rules and boundaries. In magic realism, it’s not clear if it’s magic or if it’s some type of metaphor, illusion, a dream or what not. It often has a mystical quality and can be mixed in with surrealism, where surreal occurrences are considered normal.
Based on that definition, I’d say that The Water Dancer steps firmly into the fantasy genre. The dude has powers, there are clear rules surrounding those powers, and he and others are aware that it is magic. They are undeniably magical powers, not some type of metaphor or psychological manifestation. So, definitely fantasy. Again, this is all semantics, but I’m just putting that out there.
Read it or Skip it?
After reading this, I have no doubt it will help to cement Ta-Nehisi Coates’s reputation as someone with very sound and well-constructed thoughts about the black experience in America. The The Water Dancer is a powerful and evocative story, that somehow manages to be starkly realistic and boldy imaginative.
In there are moments of great insight in this book and elements of an interesting and inventive plot as well. It’s not a perfect book though, and at times, the two aspects of the book seem to be fighting against each other. As a result, the quality of writing, the pacing of the story and the tone of the narrative can become a little uneven. If you read this, you will almost definitely get something out of it, but it’s a story that will take some effort to get through.
If you’re a fan of Coates or highly interested in this topic, I heartily recommend this book, and I think you will enjoy it. For everyone else, I’d recommend reading the first couple chapters to get a feel for whether his writing style suits you. I’ll also note that this is definitely much more literary fiction than fantasy, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re primarily interested in the fantasy aspects of the story.
As a book club pick, I’d say that it’s a good book for groups that don’t mind slightly tougher novels. The Water Dancer is not the most accessible book out there, but it is certainly a worthwhile read with interesting points of discussion.
See The Water Dancer on Amazon.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Chapter by Chapter Summary
In Part I, Hiram is a slave on the estate of Lockless in Virgina. He has a power called “Conduction” where he can transport himself or others, but he doesn’t know how to control it. His father is white and the master of Lockless, Howell. Hiram's mother Rose was sold when he was young, but Thena, another slave, helps to raise him. Hiram is intelligent, unlike his (white) brother Maynard, who is a fool. When Howell assigns Hiram a tutor, Hiram hopes it is to help him become master of Lockless one day, but his dreams are crushed when he learns it was all for him to be Maynard's personal servant. Later, Maynard passes away in an accident that Hiram survives because his Conduction abilities kick in. One day, Hiram tries to run away with another slave named Sofia, but he is betrayed, and they are captured.
In Part II, Hiram is bought and mistreated until he is injured which triggers his Conduction ability. He’s brought to a woman, Corrine, who is connected to the Underground, which frees slaves. She wants him to use his power to help the Underground, and Hiram is sent to Philadelphia to work from there. Hiram spends the year there and is glad to help free other slaves, and he meets Thena's daughter. He comes across Harriet Tubman, nicknamed "Moses," who is the only other person with the Conduction power. She teaches him that Conduction relies on the power of memories and requires water to function. Hiram also still thinks about Sofia, and he learns that Sofia is back at Lockless.
In Part III, Hiram returns to Virginia to free Sofia and Thena. He goes back to work for his father, who thinks he's been working for Corrine the whole time. He finds Sofia pregnant with another man's baby, but Hiram vows to love her and the baby. Corrine acquires Sofia so they can be together. At Lockless, Hiram finds a necklace that awakens a painful memory of his father selling his mother, which unlocks the full potential of his Conductive abilities. He uses that power to free Thena and send her to be with her daughter. When Howell passes away, Corrine acquires Lockless and asks Hiram to oversee it, effectively making him the master of Lockless. Sofia and Hiram stay there to raise the baby.
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