The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

An epic story of a drive to get north and a chance to help others. The gift that Coates gives to the reader is his language. The illustrative metaphors that help a 21st century reader try to get some semblance of the life of a 19th century slave.

Hiram Walker is the son of the master, yet is warned repeatedly that he will never be a part of that life. The life of the house and the inheritance and the love of blood relation, especially after his mother is sold and all memory of her disappears. But, Hi has a gift that will help him throughout his life. A Conduction, a memory that is more powerful than photographic, it is all consuming, all senses. A parlor trick in the House gains him the special attention from his father and he begins his tutoring. An education that puts makes him his white step-brother’s man. With his father ailing, it is up to Hi to protect his wayward brother and the plantation. But Virginia’s tobacco crops are failing and Maynard is a lout. This is beyond what Hi can do. He needs to get out.

I will end my plot discussion there because the twists and the turns start and really don’t stop until the end of the novel. It is such a powerful piece of writing. I can say right now that 50 pages in I was thinking that this book would be a great addition to any high school or college English course. Obviously, the subject matter is immensely power, but it is Coates’s writing that makes the story come alive. In one place in the beginning chapters, he creates an analogy of a machine that he uses to describe the production of the plantation in regards to slavery. I know that this may not be a new idea, but his details are so memorable and discerning.

I was also struck by the way Coates describes Hi’s place in the hierarchy of the plantation, the family, the slave culture, the state of Virginia, and ultimately the whole United States. Hi describes it to the reader from such a personal point of view and so vividly.

My only criticism is that the storytelling and writing was a bit uneven at times. There is a dream-like quality to the first several scenes of the book, but then suddenly the story becomes much more grounded and realistic. It doesn’t depart from this straight style for many chapters and then it was again jarring. It led to confusion and wasn’t signaled in any particular way.

Ultimately, The Water Dance is an immensely powerful read that is touched by elements of magical realism.

4 out of 5 stars

Thank you to NetGalley, Random House, and the author for an advanced copy for review.

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