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The irresistible current of ‘The Water Dancer’

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Writing is hard. Writing WELL is even harder. There are some writers who devote their lives to honing their specific craft, to finding ways to excel in their chosen niche. Some write fiction, some write nonfiction. Some lean toward the literary, while others revel in genre. Some are reporters and journalists. Some write essays or memoirs or comic book arcs. A person who is able to do any one of those things well is worthy of celebration.

Ta-Nehisi Coates does ALL OF IT.

The National Book Award winner and Macarthur Genius Grant recipient has made his first foray into the realm of fiction (leaving aside his magnificent Marvel turns on Black Panther and Captain America books); his newest work is “The Water Dancer” (One World, $28), a heartbreakingly powerful work of historical fiction and magical realism. It’s a fictionalized exploration of one young man’s struggle with (and against) the peculiar institution that remains our country’s greatest shame.

It’s also a story about the magic of memory and the power of stories, a look at how our pasts can shape our futures and how words can change the world. It’s a tale of love lost and rediscovered, all under the looming shadow of slavery. Freedom – real freedom – comes with costs both expected and surprising, but there are many who are willing to pay all that and more.

In the mid-19th century, Hiram Walker lives in bondage – one of the Tasked. His Virginia home – and many of the others nearby – are slowly fading as years of relentless tobacco farming have turned the soil to dust. His father is the owner of the plantation, his mother sold away. That loss of his mother proves to be the only gap in his otherwise eidetic memory – a gift that leads to him finding a place away from the field and in the house of his father, serving as a valet to the young man that only Hiram and his father know is Hiram’s half-brother.

But there’s something more to Hiram’s gifts than a sharp mind and a nigh-perfect memory – a gift that might make him one of the most important of his people.

Hiram wants to run, but it’s not that simple. Before he knows it, he finds himself swept up into a maelstrom. He roams from the slowly crumbling world of the Virginia aristocracy to the shocking freedom of Philadelphia. He spends time buried beneath the earth, caged and released over and over again for reasons that he can’t possibly fathom. He encounters ideologues and zealots on both sides of the conflict between the slavers and the enslaved. Hiram becomes a vital soldier in that war – one whose gifts are apparent on the surface, even as they run far, far deeper than even he could ever have imagined.

It’s a war fought one small skirmish, a few desperate souls at a time. But there are people that Hiram left behind – and he is willing to do anything it takes to save them, even if it means plumbing the depths of his being to unleash a power that no one really understands. Not even himself.

Going into much more detail on “The Water Dancer” risks sacrificing some of the impact that comes with experiencing the narrative’s unfolding in the moment; as someone who was repeatedly struck by what he saw upon the page, I couldn’t in good conscience take that away from you.

If you’ve read anything by Coates, you already know that he is a phenomenal talent, one of the best writers of his generation, both craft-wise and conceptually. Few have captured the African-American experience as completely and captivatingly as he has; it only makes sense that his fiction would have similar sentiments to express. That’s a big part of what makes this book so powerful – the energy that Coates brings, the knowledge and the passion … it shines from every page.

“The Water Dancer” features page after page of powerful narrative rendered in sizzling, sharp prose. There’s a toothsome quality to Coates’s prose that lends itself perfectly to a story like this one, a tale of undeserved pain and power retaken. The harsh bleakness of the lives of the Tasked is rendered with unforgiving detail, while the more mystical aspects of the narrative are offered up wreathed in a gauzier, but no less meticulous manner.

This is a story of the greatest ongoing tragedy in American history, the collective shame of our past. Much of our history was built upon the backs of the enslaved; writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates are here to ensure that we never forget. Coates shines the burning beacon of his imagination onto that truth, generating a story that is a challenging mix of brutality and beauty – it is rapturously readable and straight-up compelling as hell.

It almost feels like false advertising to call “The Water Dancer” a debut novel; technically true, but also the product of a prolific and profoundly gifted writer. We’re lucky to have someone like Coates who is willing to share his gifts with us – and lucky to live in a time when he is allowed to.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 October 2019 12:30

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