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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Water Dancer: The Unflinching Urgency of Past Horrors

When an intellectual giant like Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a first foray into fiction, you read it. You just do. And I did. The Water Dancer is a stunning novel — probably the smartest, best-written novel I've read this year. But it's heavy. Often dense. It's one of those novels I feel like I appreciated for its genius more than enjoyed as a pleasurable reading experience. But I'm infinitely glad I read this. This is a novel people will be talking about for a long time.

The novel is about the horrors of slavery, including possibly its greatest horror: The arbitrary separation of families. Our narrator — a slave named Hiram on a failing Virginia tobacco plantation — has been separated from his mother since he was a child. And despite his otherwise photographic memory, he can't remember anything about her. He does, however, know who his father is: The white man who owns the plantation, and hence, owns Hiram himself.

But his preternatural gift for memory isn't his only power. He can also "conduct." But neither he, nor we the reader, know what exactly that means or how he does it. Basically, as we see in the opening scene of the novel, there's a blue light, he blacks out, and then transports to a spot either miles or inches away from where he was before. In the opening scene, during the traumatic event when he wrecks the carriage carrying him and his half-brother, the plantation's heir, Maynard, he sees his mother dancing in the water. And so we suspect from the beginning that his ability to conduct is somehow tied to memory. This is vintage Coates: The power of memory is critical to righting past wrongs.

So Hiram grows up on the plantation, raised by a woman named Thena, whose own children had been sold away. As a young man, Hiram falls in love with a woman named Sophia. They decide to run. From there, the novel turns bildungsroman, chronicling Hiram's journey north and to several other places. He meets "Moses" — a fictional representation of Harriet Tubman, who may or may not hold the key to conduction. And he learns the ways of Coates's richly reimagined Underground Railroad.

Besides the evocative, lush writing here, the strength of this novel is how Coates relates the past to the present with unflinching urgency — a Coates signature, which you know if you've read his essays or his National Book Award-winning memoir, Between The World And Me. Honestly, though, again this 400-page novel can be a bit of a tough hang at times. During parts, I felt like I was doing homework, rather than reading for fun. But I do want to emphasize I whole-heartedly recommend this. It's a vitally important work.

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