Book Review: The Water Dancer
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he's ever known. So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia's proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children - the violent and capricious separation of families - and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today's most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.
The Water Dancer teeters delicately on the line of historical fiction and fantasy. It's a fascinating, in-depth look at slavery and bondage and what these concepts can do to a man. One of the most compelling sequences was when the protagonist and narrator, Hiram, begins to realize what his bondage, a fact since his birth, truly means for him in terms of freedom of love and movement. It's also a terrific look at the progressive movements in America at the time, which included everything from abolition to suffrage to free love.
It's a great set-up, but the novel falters in several areas, including prose. Hiram has such a ruminative voice that its occasionally difficult to tell when an actual action has taken place (revenge against a particular foe was so lightly touched upon that I didn't realize until much later that it had actually happened) and Coates tries to fit so much philosophy and politics and awakenings into his story that it can feel a little bloated. Everyone, from high or low in society, tends to talk in speeches, all of which feel the same. The dialog only seldom allows for differences in class or accent, which is a true shame, given the variety and caliber of characters presented here. There is magic in this book too, invoked by memory, which was promising but ultimately not terribly useful concept in the book- everything that was done seemed capable of being done through ordinary Underground methods.
Overall, The Water Dancers is an evocative, fantastical, but somewhat underdeveloped insider's look at the slave system and the Underground system. An enjoyable read, but perhaps not a destined classic.
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