The Water Dancer – Ta-Nehesi Coates (Hamish Hamilton 2020)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has built a strong reputation for his non-fiction work, particularly his award-winning “Between The World And Me” from 2015 which was written as a letter to his son encompassing feelings regarding being a black man in the United States, a twenty-first century slant on James Baldwin’s important “The Fire Next Time” (1963). This is his debut novel, a historical work, set in Virginia in the nineteenth century.

Hiram Walker is a slave.  Acknowledged by his master as his son he is spared work in the tobacco fields and used as a servant for his white half-brother Maynard.  Whilst returning the no-good heir from the racetrack Hiram has a vision which leads to a catastrophic accident which puts his future in doubt.

Events lead him to become linked to the Underground Railroad, a group of agents who worked to free slaves and bring them north.  He meets and is inspired by Harriet Tubman, the real-life woman who rescued around 70 slaves on 13 dangerous missions.  Coates here employs a little magic to explain Tubman’s success, magic which Hiram himself discovers he has the potential to utilise, the ability to jaunt through space.

I wasn’t sure about this – feeling it undermined the true life heroine’s contribution but looking at the life of Harriet Tubman afterwards she did seem to experience visions probably caused by an overseer throwing a heavy weight at her head when a child so Coates is using an imaginative next step in using these visions to assist her with her rescues. Also, despite any misgivings the section where Hiram accompanies her on a mission was one of my favourite parts of the novel.  What also is done very well is emphasising the importance of story and their history for the black characters (both aspects often present in the very best Black American literature) and also conveying the sense of loss in their lives here at a time when the good times are drawing to a close for the white plantation owners meaning the slaves are no longer the asset for them they once were, which brings its own particular set of problems.

Comparisons do have to be made, however, to the multi-award winning 2016 best-selling novel by Colson Whitehead “The Underground Railroad” which similarly uses imagination to provide a creative slant on this rescue network.  That is one of my favourite novels in recent years and whereas I was very impressed by Coates’ debut the Whitehead novel has the edge.

The Water Dancer was published in hardback in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in February 2020.  The Penguin paperback is due on 19th November. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

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