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26 February 2020

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer: a slavery novel blending literary and genre fiction

The acclaimed essayist’s debut novel is set in antebellum Virginia and “free” Philadelphia in the first half of the 19th century.

By Catherine Taylor

The American journalist and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of three acclaimed non-fiction works, including the phenomenally successful Between the World and Me (2015), which took the form of an extended letter to Coates’s teenage son. Primarily  focusing on racial injustice – the historical, the symbolic, and the very much present – Coates memorably wrote: “I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life.”

Between The World and Me was hailed as the contemporary successor to The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s civil rights-era treatise published in 1963 in the form of two letters, one to his nephew, on the 100th anniversary of the so-called liberation of black America in 1862.

Coates channels another remarkable figure of black American history in The Water Dancer, his first novel. (Of the reasons behind the book, Coates has said: “It became clear to me that I could say some things in the fiction that I couldn’t say in non-fiction.”) It is set in antebellum Virginia and “free” Philadelphia in the first half of the 19th century, an era of strong social reform and sharp economic delineation between North and South, and Coates’s epigraph quotes Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist leader and statesman, who himself escaped slavery in Maryland: “My part has been to tell the story of the slave. The story of the master never wanted for narrators.” 

Coates’s protagonist Hiram Walker, born on a tobacco plantation to a mother snatched away from him, his father the white slave-owner for whom she was forced to be his “fancy”, much resembles what we know of Douglass’s early life, and this first part of the novel is written with all the gravitas of Douglass’s own autobiographies. Hiram is inquisitive, intelligent and with an extraordinary photographic memory. His memory combines with an unusual power, the “Conduction”: driven by the force of water, this rapturous out-of-body experience enables him to transport himself and others to different (and safer) places. 

The Conduction can only be exercised, and therefore learned, by the recalling and releasing of painful memories – both the collective and individual pasts of Hiram and his fellow slaves. This power is shared by one of the historical figures Hiram meets during the course of the novel, the political activist Harriet Tubman, known here as “Moses”. Tubman was a former slave who became one of the most famous operators of the Underground Railroad – the secret network of safe houses, operating from the late 18th century up to the Civil War (1861-65), which enabled slaves to escape the plantations and reach freedom. 

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Hiram is one of the Tasked, the enslaved who serve the Quality, the slave-masters. The poor whites, with whom the Quality have an uneasy alliance, are the Low. Below them are the Freed, former slaves who have bought liberty. As he grows up, Hiram is acknowledged by his father and brought to the big house, Lockless, to be tantalisingly and briefly educated as a future manservant for his half-brother, the feckless white son and heir, Maynard. When Maynard drowns in a river-crossing – a supernaturally rendered passage that Hiram has foreseen in a vision and which he survives – Hiram’s fate is to be sold on to Maynard’s fiancée, the mysterious Corinne Quinn.

For the majority of the book, Coates is as dignified and impassioned in his imaginative fiction as in his essays. Hiram’s horrific struggles, which feature bouts of escape and recapture, are never gratuitously graphic. Coates emphasises too the South’s immense dependence on the slave system to ensure the status quo: “Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.” 

The book bears comparison with Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), Colson Whitehead’s bestselling The Underground Railroad (2016), and also elements of Kevin Powers’s underrated A Shout in the Ruins (2018). Coates doesn’t shirk from the complex feelings within Hiram, who, alongside his burning anger at great injustice, also misses the plantation, and chafes against the strictures of the Railroad. This is, after all, a coming-of-age novel. 

Where the book falters is in its second half as it veers into superhero, Marvel-comic territory, with a confusing commingling of magical realism, clichéd phrases and mystical scenarios. While intriguing as a blend of literary and genre fiction, the lasting impression is of one hugely talented author in search of a coherent narrative. 

The Water Dancer 
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Hamish Hamilton, 416pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy