The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Review

I received a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates The Water Dancer through NetGalley for review purposes. As always, this review reflects only my honest thoughts on the book.

The Water Dancer
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Publication Date: 24 September 2019
Publisher: One World (Penguin Random House)
Kindle; 407 Pages

Genre: Historical Fiction/Magical Realism

 

 

Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her — but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. 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 utopic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.

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My Review

If you were introduced to me through poetry (I imagine that’s the most likely way you’d end up here!), you might not be aware of my background in history (at least beyond Boleyn), particularly of the American Civil War. With triple minors in History, Civil War Era Studies, and Public History as an undergrad, I spent countless hours studying slavery and all that came with it. But I never experienced those stories in any way like this.

I’d long since been aware of Ta-Nehisi Coates, at least in the nonfiction realm. His Between the World and Me (2015) topped the NYT Bestsellers’ list during my bookstore “career,” but I hadn’t had the chance to read it myself. I spotted The Water Dancer on NetGalley and, without much background, knew that this was my chance to experience the work of a writer every had been (rightfully) talking about.

This novel took me a while to get through, in part because I read a majority of it through the chaos of 2020. But I’m almost glad to have taken so long with it—this gave me the chance to savour every scene, every line, every word of this powerful book.

It’s been months since I finished reading The Water Dancer. And yet, I think about it often. This novel brings magic to a world that, for me, was almost painfully academic. It brought Hiram’s story to life. Even Harriet Tubman came alive in these pages, radiating with the fantastical blue light.

In The Water Dancer, Coates creates an honest-to-god masterpiece. This book reinvents the power of memory and transcends reality with incredible depth. Made all the more prevalent by 2020’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, The Water Dancer puts a sort of mythical spin on history, even as the story speaks to the present.

It probably won’t come as a surprise that I plan to pick up Between the World and Me as soon as I can, if not Coates’ entire body of work. Even outside of this fiction debut, I have no doubt I’m in for a treat of beautiful language and powerful stories.

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About the Author

Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me, a finalist for the National Book Award. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow, Coates has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations.” He lives in New York with his wife and son.

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