Ta-Nehisi Coates plays to his strengths with The Water Dancer, his first foray into narrative fiction. He sets the story in a time and place he knows well: pre-Civil War America. It’s a period of our country’s history that he’s explored in much of his writing, particularly the bracing essay “The Case for Reparations” for the Atlantic. And he addressed it in his National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me, using it as a jumping-off point to delve into the continued degradation of Black people by modern institutions and citizens.
Throughout The Water Dancer, Coates puts those same feelings into the mouths of his characters, particularly Hiram, a young mixed-race man born into slavery in Virginia. We follow Hiram from his days toiling as a servant for his piggish half-brother to his work freeing other enslaved people as part of the Underground Railroad. In one poignant scene, Hiram recalls attending a family dinner while living among emancipated Blacks in Pennsylvania. As the evening winds down, one of the children starts to play the piano.
“Watching that little girl encouraged in her pursuits, rewarded in whatever genius she had,” Hiram writes, “I saw all that had been taken from me, and all that was so regularly taken from the millions of colored children bred to the Task. But more than this I saw, for the first time, colored people in that true freedom... that I hungered for.”
Because Coates knows this time period and territory so well, it allows him to pour all of himself into the prose. The Water Dancer is as illuminating and awe-inspiring as a falling star, soaring by at a similar clip. It’s rich with detail, but not overwhelmed with it. There’s just enough to urge you forward to the next page.
The book’s only hiccup is a holdover from Coates’ other work as a writer of comics. You see, Hiram is gifted with something called “The Conduction,” which is a kind of supernatural force that transports him to key moments in his life and back again. Even as it works as a perfect metaphor for the ways in which Black people are forever connected to and frequently exhausted by the weight of the past, it also distracts from the story. The Water Dancer might be built around frequent appearances of “The Conduction,” but the power trips up an otherwise brilliantly crafted novel.