In his latest novel, The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates plunges readers into a story as fluid and moving as its namesake.
Born into bondage under his slave-owning father, young Hiram’s convinced his ticket to freedom lies in his genius, his prowess for memorization. Gifted with a photographic memory, Hiram can envision every memory and story in crystalline and minute detail, these moments as vivid and vivacious to him as the day they occurred. Every moment except for his mother and the day she was sold. A hazy fog fills the gap in his memory where his mother should be, and even the scarcest details of her, from her features to her demeanor, evade Hiram. Until years later when he topples into the river Goose.
Before Hiram struggles to stay afloat in the harsh current, drowning alongside his brother and master Maynard, Hiram sees a woman wreathed in blue light dancing with a water jug balanced atop her head. Instinctively, he knows this woman is his mother, and as the fight drains out of him, and unconsciousness succumbs him, he awakes back at Lockless. Though the river weakened Hiram’s body, it strengthened his resolve. Enlisting the help of Georgie Parks, a man rumored to be allied with the Underground—a covert organization aiding slave escapes—Hiram runs from Lockless. However, loyalties are not always as they seem, nor are the people Hiram knows. After escaping the clutches of a nefarious group, Hiram inadvertently finds himself recruited into the Underground, for he holds a power, a potent magic, that could turn the tides in their favor.
Coates’ novel melds the history and fantasy genres, a marriage that, despite their juxtapositions, thrives within The Water Dancer. The seamless blend of historical fiction with Hiram’s fantastical ability achieves such a fresh, yet no less powerful portrayal of history’s racial atrocities. A power mimicked within Coates’ writing, which is beautifully elaborate yet equally cutting. Despite this novel’s length, 400 pages and thousands of sentences, Coates pens lines that resonate, that make so heavy an impact readers carry them along in the back of their minds throughout the book’s duration: “I was a man well regarded in slavery, which is to say I was never regarded as a man at all.”
Coates’ characters produce a similar impact, though to a more diluted degree. From Hiram to Harriet to Sophia to Thena, the characters exude strength, a toughness translated through their every action. Yet, a certain stoicism accompanies them as well. This trait, though befitting given the abhorrent circumstances forced upon them, strips away some of the emotional impact. A prime part of this novel involves the bonds between people, from platonic to familial to romantic, and Coates approaches these bonds in a more indirect manner. And it works in the grand scheme of the novel, yet I would’ve liked to see more of a connection between them.
Aside of this one minor misgiving, Coates frames and develops his characters well, especially Hiram. Albeit Hiram’s mature beyond his years, he undergoes considerable growth throughout The Water Dancer, making him one of the more dynamic characters. When the book begins, Hiram is merely a child, with naive and somewhat idealized notions of his world, yet as the early chapters progress rapidly through his younger years to his early adulthood, these ideas fall away in place of Hiram’s more realistic, though slightly flawed, outlook on aspects of his life. Even in this realistic stage of his life, Hiram continually changes and sheds these flawed ideas he’s carried, especially regarding Sophia.
Relative to the rest of the story, the fantasy element assumes a much smaller role, yet the power Hiram wields is imaginative and elevates the story; it highlights the importance of one’s memories, one’s stories, one’s history. However, despite my enjoyment of this, at times, I was a bit confused. Though Hiram’s power is purposely vague initially, so as to show his ignorance of it and add mystery, I feel that it needed to be addressed more straightforwardly.
A powerful story of freedom, rooted in history with a dash of fantasy, The Water Dancer will sweep you away.