BookBrowse Reviews The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates X
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2020, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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National Book Award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates' much-anticipated first novel is a dynamic slave narrative with a tinge of the supernatural.

For close to two decades, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been two writers. There's the celebrated essayist and author of influential nonfiction works, including the National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me, written as a heart-wrenching letter to his son about the realities of being Black in America. Then there's Coates the successful comic book writer, who in 2016 reinvigorated Marvel's floundering Black Panther series a couple of years before the character clawed his way to pop culture phenomenon status in a $1 billion grossing blockbuster. (The author has since taken on Marvel's goody two-shoes poster boy Captain America.)

Now, with the launch of The Water Dancer, we have the long-awaited third string to Coates' writer-bow – the novelist. If you were a betting person, you might have put money on Coates' major fiction debut to arrive weighted with the gravitas of his nonfiction best. Surprisingly, the novel attempts to merge both the author's political and comic book worlds, but ends up skewing towards the caped crusader camp, albeit without the genre's penchant for crotch-tight spandex.

What begins as an antebellum South slave narrative that's all wispy Toni Morrison-esque flourishes, drifts into a tale of espionage and rescue, before suddenly, in the blink of an eye, revealing itself to have been a version of a superhero origin story all along. There's even a sprinkling of meta-human powers thrown in for good measure. The about-turns are clunky, but it somehow pulls together in the end.

Hiram Walker is born a biracial slave on the tobacco plantation of Lockless, Virginia. After his mother is sold off, his plantation owner father takes pity on young Hiram and invites him to live in the big house as the servant to his airheaded half-brother Maynard. Years later, the two brothers almost drown and, through the accident, Hiram discovers strange gifts within him connected to the water, his highly-developed photographic memory and a mysterious blue mist. On recovering, he resolves to escape Lockless and his enslavement.

Hiram's grueling search for freedom leads him to the Underground, a secret society whose mission is to smuggle slaves from the deep South to the safety of the North. As an Underground agent, Hiram works tirelessly to rescue the loved ones he has left behind in Virginia, while striving to master the primitive power he possesses known as Conduction, which could facilitate the emancipation of thousands of slaves.

For all its supernatural dealings, The Water Dancer is, oddly, quite a formally voiced book. Told in the first person from Hiram's point of view, the writing is taut and precise, almost Victorian in tone. Perhaps this is meant to echo the style of two of Hiram's favorite books - indeed the only two explicitly named - Sir Walter Scott's historical romance novels Ivanhoe and Rob Roy. It certainly has an adventurous and exciting rhythm. But what's gained in pace is lost somewhat in emotion.

Hiram is noble, patient, stoic. Too stoic to be moved at times. This is a man who is beaten and broken, who suffers and is witness to immense atrocities. Yet, as readers, we're kept at bay from his anguish. The formality of the writing doesn't help here. You wish Coates would have allowed Hiram to unbridle his frustrations more, to unleash a fire-and-brimstone fury upon his subjugators. Instead, there are too many instances where feelings are bottled up and hurts are needlessly left unsaid.

Coates skillfully explores the many horrors of slavery. Through his journeys, Hiram comes in contact with countless former slaves who share their heartbreaking stories in great detail. These voices widen the scope, and it's in these testimonials where this novel truly comes alive.

The sensitive representation of female characters and their gender specific persecutions during the 1800s is also to be commended. When Hiram discloses his love for Sophia, a black slave mistress owned by a neighboring plantation owner, she lets her feelings on marriage be known: "Ain't no freedom for a woman in trading a white man for a colored." Later in the North, Hiram observes two shaven-headed proto-suffragettes who "essayed on the rights of women to appear with all the freedoms of men, in all the same spheres." Then there's Moses, a sort of Conduction sorceress supreme who befriends Hiram: "Knives melt upon the garments of Moses. Bullwhips turn to ash in the slave-master's hand." She may be a contrivance, but it is joyous to read a powerful female character loom large in a world dominated by male slavers.

Those waiting for Coates' great state-of-the-nation novel will have to wait a while longer it seems. For now they'll have to settle on this fantasy-tinged neo-slave narrative that is quietly touching in its strange ways.

Reviewed by Dean Muscat

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2019, and has been updated for the December 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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