Blurb from Goodreads
Hiram Walker is born into bondage on a Virginia plantation. But he is also born gifted with a mysterious power that he won’t discover until he is almost a man, when he risks everything for a chance to escape. One fateful decision will carry him away from his makeshift plantation family – his adoptive mother, Thena, a woman of few words and many secrets, and his beloved, angry Sophia – and into the covert heart of the underground war on slavery.
Hidden amidst the corrupt grandeur of white plantation society, exiled as guerrilla cells in the wilderness, buried in the coffin of the deep South and agitating for utopian ideals in the North, there exists a widespread network of secret agents working to liberate the enslaved. Hiram joins their ranks and learns fast but in his heart he yearns to return to his own still-enslaved family, to topple the plantation that was his first home. But to do so, he must first master his unique power and reclaim the story of his greatest loss.
Propulsive, transcendent and blazing with truth, The Water Dancer is a story of oppression and resistance, separation and homecoming. Ta-Nehisi Coates imagines the covert war of an enslaved people in response to a generations-long human atrocity – a war for the right to life, to kin, to freedom.
The Water Dancer is an important novel with so much to say about slavery and injustice, it has so much heart, and so much feeling… yet I struggled with it. It’s a novel that relies heavily on magical realism and I could not get to grips with that aspect.
When the book opens with main character Hiram drowning in the river I felt I was equally drowning. I couldn’t follow the imagery. It confused me. I didn’t know if this was real, imagined, a flashback, otherworldly… I just read and felt confused.
But I persisted. And soon I discovered this novel’s rhythms. I fell into the author’s writing style and began to enjoy the reading experience. Although enjoy is perhaps the wrong word. Because this book is haunting. It haunts the reader with the pain and suffering of the Tasked. The brutality they are forced to endure. The dehumanisation. The robbing of freedoms… I found myself overwhelmed with emotion on many occasions as my heart broke for people torn from their families; children sold from their mothers arms, mothers and fathers sold away from their children; women were raped repeatedly; people were brutalised, tortured, hunted… this novel opens the eye to the terrifying horrors of slavery.
Hiram is the novel’s main character. He is the child of a plantation owner named Walker as a result of his raping Hiram’s mother Rose. Hiram is brought up alongside his white half-brother Maynard and Hiram is charged by his father with keeping Maynard in line as Maynard is to inherit the plantation. But things are changing on the plantation. The tobacco fields are fading and many of the slaves are being sold off. This includes Hiram’s mother Rose.
Hiram doesn’t remember life before his mother was sold. He doesn’t remember her. His memory is powerful in so many other ways and it is a skill he uses throughout the novel, and yet he relies on other people telling about his mother. The one memory he seems to be able to grasp is that she was a water dancer. This relationship between water and memory is key to the novel and to the path Hiram will forge in his future as an adult he becomes involved with The Underground giving slaves passage to freedom.
The Water Dancer uses its own language to illustrate historical events surrounding American slavery, which can be tricky to get to grips with. Slaves are known as The Tasked. Slave traders as Ryland’s Hounds. Natchez-way is the hell that slaves are sold into further in the Deep South. Quality is the comfortable way of life experienced by white slave-owners. The Low are the poor whites.
But the one that I struggled with the most was the paranormal aspect given to The Underground which was called Conduction. Conduction seems to be an otherworldly skill that only a few people are capable of accessing. It somehow uses water, fog and memory to transfer people to freedom… and I have to say it baffled me. Maybe I should have just accepted my lack of understanding but every time it was mentioned it brought me out of the novel.
Between 30 and 60% approximately I was fine. I was very much invested in the story and could follow along. But once the character of Moses (a reimagined version of Harriet Tubman) was fully introduced and she and main character Hiram discussed Conduction I was lost again. I found myself reading but not following the story as I would have liked.
Personally I would have preferred this book to not have had the paranormal / magical realism aspect. To me it would have been a much more effective portrayal of historic events even with the book’s own terminology and I wouldn’t have spent so much time scratching my head as to what was going on. Sadly the magical realism aspect kept bringing me out of the world of the novel and made this a frustrating reading experience for this reader.
But overall the book is an important read. It has a story to tell that needs telling. A story that we constantly need to be reminded of. A story of slavery that needs recognising and not brushing under the painful carpet. It’s a book that honours the pain, torture, grief, abuse, rape, murder, and inhumanity that Black slaves in America experienced. And a book that shows us that the impact of these events are still reverberating in these modern times.
Recommended to readers of historical fiction who like books with a heavy magical realism tone.
*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review*
This edition publishing 8th October 2020, Penguin General UK – Fig Tree, Hamish Hamilton, Viking, Penguin Life, Penguin Business