The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2019)



I’m exhausted. Ta-Nehisi Coates does that to readers. Purposefully. Whether reading his memoir, Between the World and Me, or his essays or his articles in Atlantic, his writing is so powerful and so complex, that it takes energy, concentration, and rereading to be sure you’re getting everything. The Water Dancer, his debut work of fiction, is kid of like that, but also different. This is a story of slavery where the enslaved people are the Task, the enslavers are the Quality, and the South is the coffin. This brutal, mystical story of Hiram, born into Virginia bondage, but also born with the family power of Conduction, shows how he becomes a member of two worlds: the world of the Task and also the world of the Underground. His photographic memory and paranormal powers propel him into roles he does not always welcome.

Coates’s storytelling is both violent and beautiful, a story of humanity and inhumanity woven with magical realism and brutal reality. I thought of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. And though I was glued to the story for all 400 pages, there were scenes that left me confused and questioning, gaps where I needed more depth of a character or situation to feel fully convinced of a scene, not in the magical realism scenes where one has to allow the imagination to take a leap, but in the realistic scenes where I needed more development/motivation/character building to feel satisfied.

In Coates’s nonfiction, I feel I have to hang on every sentence to garner it full meaning and depth, not because it’s confusing, but because it offers so many layers to ponder, so many ideas to examine. This was an interesting change, leaping about through the real and the imaginary, leaving some things hanging loosely while forging ahead with the story. It felt a little bit like a jolty amusement park ride: fast, sloggy, wild, and unpredictable. Exhausting in a good way.