guest review: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, from Pops

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel is The Water Dancer, a victim of my high expectations I’m afraid; so this is an ambivalent, and very subjective, review. First, the challenges: an indirect narrative style that often confounds and obscures, with overworked symbolism and metaphor that just didn’t work for me. I appreciated the general sweep of the story and many key characters, and ultimately, the ‘message’ or ‘meaning’ I think it all carries. But ultimately the journey was not as satisfying as it may have been with a more comfortable form. Nevertheless, I match this with Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and films 12 Years a Slave and Harriet*, all providing healthy realistic images of slavery, and the human stories embedded in that history.

We follow first-person narrator Hiram Walker from a failing Virginia tobacco plantation (owned by his white father, who owns his slave mother), to a vibrant, diverse and urban Philadelphia before the Fugitive Slave Act, front-line base for the ‘Underground’; and then his return to the plantation. The story’s sweep is like the contrast of those places: from stifling oppression and decay, to liberating promise, and back again. That middle is also a high point in this work; it encompasses Coates’ version of important real characters and events at a time of social ferment wider than just abolition. Notably: William Still (a monumental historical figure whose book The Underground Railroad Records Coates credits in a brief Author Note); wonderful characterization of the vibrant city at a social moment in time that was creative and liberating; and Harriet Tubman, by that name a character in this story, including a slave-liberating foray into her native Maryland, based on fact. (It was uncanny and tremendously satisfying to see the wonderful film Harriet on opening weekend, just as her story was unfolding in my reading.) Sophie (focus of Hiram’s affection); episodic ally Corrine and her loyal aide Hawkins; the tragic Dr. Fields; and the whole White family in Philadephia – are all important and endearing supporting characters.

In his telling, Coates shows a sophisticated sense of history as he describes the workings of plantation economics, terribly destructive to human lives, rich naturally abundant soil and the values of a nation in the process of forming itself. The central idea that anchors Coates’ tale is one to embrace: nothing in this world is ‘pure’ – not simple, and not just one thing (except perhaps the evil institution of slavery, a touchstone never questioned by our protagonist and his cohort). It’s a lesson in dialectics, in nuance; life is messy and non-linear, throwing us unexpected curves, confusion and tragic irony. Individuals thought to be one thing, can surprise in their complexity. Bloodlines are all mixed up, connecting people in surprising ways, and not always predictive of their soul. Freedom is not a place one can entirely escape to; it is much more complicated than that. In all this, Coates offers useful space for observing both our history, and our human-centric world.

Given that I know Coates to be a thoughtful and helpful social observer, and a skilled writer, I suspect he wrote exactly the book he wanted to write. I also expect it will age well with me, and perhaps more perspective will emerge as Coates’ career matures.

Sounds like a careful and considered response, Pops, and thank you. This is why an unusual narrative structure is a risk. Metaphor can be overdone; and we all have different thresholds, of course. I appreciate you wondering how it will age with you, too, though.


*I want to acknowledge that the movie Harriet has seen some very mixed reactions. There have been some concerns (like about casting). There have also been some counterpoints; this source claims the white savior allegation is not factual. I thought Buzzfeed and Business Insider (of all places) did a decent job of trying to parse the controversies. (I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m just sampling a few other thinkers here.)

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for that review. I’ve been reading this book also. I love Coate’s non-fiction, and I think this is a great first novel for him. I’ve been wondering about the supernatural aspects of the story. Because I enjoyed the way he described the conduction phenomenon, it works for me. Perhaps the book would have been more comfortable for some readers if it had stuck strictly to the historical fiction genre. But it is a central theme of the book, so for me it did not detract from the story.

  2. […] this is a heritage of social complexity that Ta-Nehisi Coates is addressing even today in his new fiction. Chesnutt’s purpose is to give readers of the time a sense of “the complex psychology […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: