The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
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.
As usual, I have a lot to say and am having trouble forming coherent thoughts about this book, so please bear with me.
The biggest thing I can say about this book is that I’m let down, mainly by the writing. I’ve read Coates’ nonfiction before, and thought it was so well-written, clear, and concise. But I hated the writing in this book.
It’s just so dense. The first paragraph of the book is nine lines long, all one sentence, with seven commas and “because” twice, which is just too much. It was exhausting to read, and I had to reread sentences all the time. The writing was better during actual scenes rather than just exposition; the dialogue felt natural and action was explained well. But the exposition was overly written and dense.
I also wasn’t a huge fan of the tense. It’s this awkward mix of past and present tense. Hiram is simultaneously telling the reader about everything that happened in his past, while currently living that past, if that makes sense at all. I don’t think that explanation made sense, but it really didn’t work for me.
I didn’t mind the characters for the most part. Hiram was an interesting narrator and main character, and I enjoyed the side characters.
I also enjoyed the magical/supernatural elements of the story, but also hated certain aspects of it. I loved the idea and concept of it, and thought it was explained really well. **SPOILER** What I didn’t love was that, in this story, Harriet Tubman is literally magic and enslaved people are freed through literal magic. As a white person, I don’t want to criticize an own-voices book and how a Black person chooses to depict Black people and Black history. But I will say that Harriet Tubman being literal magic made me uncomfortable and sat wrong with me.
I’m undecided as to whether I’d recommend this book, honestly. If the plot intrigues you, and you don’t mind dense writing, and you enjoy historical fiction with some magical elements, I would say go for it. But I hesitate to give it a blanket recommendation, purely due to the density of the writing.
But those are just my thoughts! Have you read this book? What were your thoughts? Do you plan on reading it? Let me know!