Reverberating throughout Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel, “The Water Dancer,” are the haunting words that he wrote to his teenage son in his first book, “Between the World and Me.”
“The elevation of being white,” he argued, “was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destructions of families … and various other acts meant … to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our bodies.”
This passage amounts to the perfect premise for “The Water Dancer,” which is set mainly on Lockless, a plantation in Virginia where “the earth was dying and the tobacco diminishing.”
The narrator Hiram is a brooding, brilliant man with a near-photographic memory. He is born of an enslaved woman, Rose, sold wrongly south, and the white Lockless master who casts him in a protective role over a bumbling half-brother named Maynard. It is a role Hiram disdains in a world at once utterly dependent on and terrifyingly savage to his own kind.
When an accident occurs on a bridge, Maynard drowns in the river while Hiram survives. But Hiram first experiences Conduction — the ability to transport the living over water by conjuring up, through exacting memory, the dead and people of old. This supernatural ability will serve Hiram well as he tries to escape Lockless with Sophia, an enslaved woman he’s in love with. He then becomes embedded in the Underground, a northbound network orchestrated to great effect by a wealthy white woman named Corrine Quinn.
No doubt, Coates — a former journalist for the Atlantic — has done his research. In a gorgeous, realist style reminiscent of the masters of 19th-century French literature, he captures with plodding detail and observation the grave, immoral world of slavery and the undeniable courage of those, including Harriet Tubman, who dared to protest it.
But writers who set their fictive worlds in bygone eras and manage to eschew polemics for the details of history and riches of imagination must also wrangle into narrative existence all the dynamics that make a novel sing. In “The Water Dancer,” Coates has accomplished this to varying degrees of success.
By creating a deeply cerebral character whose relationships with women are (understandably) more maternal in nature, Coates must still carve out space for matters of the heart. As such, Hiram’s love for Sophia — bordering on melodramatic at times — never really hits the right tempo until a little too late. Additionally, while the magical elements of the story elevate Hiram to superhero status in a gloriously satisfying way, they sometimes jar against the realism that underpins the narrative.
And yet even as the novel drifts toward its rather predictable, feel-good ending, we continue to root for it. Because, after all, we are still living in a world that needs a book like this to be written, to join the centuries-long lament against the lasting, ever-damaging effects of slavery.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based critic and award-winning fiction writer.
The Water Dancer
By: Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Publisher: One World, 403 pages, $28.