The Water Dancer: A Novel
The prose is magjestic(not a typo, a combination of magnificent and majestic). And the reason why I lead with that is simply, the magjesty(not a typo)will keep you going when this bold and very ambitious novel drags a little under the weight of the challenge of crafting a story about the ills and evils of slavery, without the loudness.
“It always happened like this—that is what I had been told. Bored whites were barbarian whites. While they played at aristocrats, we were their well-appointed and stoic attendants. But when they tired of dignity, the bottom fell out. New games were anointed and we were but pieces on the board. It was terrifying. There was no limit to what they might do at this end of the tether, nor what my father would allow them to do.”
The foundation of this novel is slavery, and the story is told in a whisper, not a shout, but it so fits the protagonist Hiram Walker. Hiram is the enslaved son of the master, Howell Walker on Lockless, a tobacco plantation in Virginia.
In a nod to that whisper I mentioned, Coates avoids the use of master, masters, slaves, enslaved, etc. instead of employing those terms so familiar to us all concerning slavery, Coates boldly creates a new language referring to the master class as the “Quality” and the enslaved as the “tasked.”An interesting choice of terms that speaks to ambition and boldness, no?
Although Hiram Walker is tasked in the house of his father and enjoys some ‘privilege’ he still pines for freedom. “So as to my freedom, the events stood thus: I knew that I would never advance beyond my blood-bound place at Lockless.”
In his quest for freedom, there are some costly miscalculations and Hiram suffers some setbacks that lead to greater comebacks as he becomes active in the famed Underground Railroad. Hiram is blessed with the power of conduction, not just in the regular sense of the word, but in a magical realism sense.
He has experienced this power in him during a near death drowning at Lockless, but has never learned how to harness this power at his demand. That all changes when he meets none other than Moses herself, Harriet Tubman while working the underground.
I find it very curious to write this conduction business as magical realism(for lack of a better term) because I think it diminishes all the courageous and daring actions taken by those on their way to freedom.
It feels dismissive of what one had to endure to reach freedom, and in some ways denies the obvious brilliance and bravery of a Harriet Tubman who chose to return to the coffin(slavery in the Deep South) again and again and..... I love Coates’ writing but I am not enamored with that choice.
Having said that, I still enthusiastically recommend this novel, just superbly written with a cast of engaging characters, some intrigue, some thrills, and yes some horror, but not written horrifically( the whispering). I’m certain this book will garner a multitude of discussion and commerce. Ta-Nehisi Coates can now confidently add novelist to his writing career! Thanks to Netgalley and OneWorld-Random House Publishing for an ARC. Book is out 9/24/2019.