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.

Barracoon- Zora Neale Hurston (2018) – A Real Life Review

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I first encountered African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel “Their Eyes Are Watching God” back in 2011 where it became one of my Top 10 reads of the year.  This is a book which has grown steadily in reputation, particularly this century and now is a recognised American classic.  Hurston produced three other novels and was a significant folklorist of tales of black America as well as a short story writer, playwright and essayist.  This book caused quite a stir when it was published for the first time earlier this year, 58 years after the author’s death.  I’d highlighted it back in January in my Looking Back, Looking Forward post as one of nine titles I was looking forward to reading this year and now I have.  (I couldn’t resist a peep back at that post- I’ve read just two of these so far although a number have to still to be published).

Subtitled “The Story Of The Last Slave” this came about as a result of a series of interviews in 1927/8 with Oluale Kossula who had been snatched, aged nineteen, from his West African home and brought over on the last slave ship “The Clotilda” in 1860, an illegal act carried out long after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic trade.  The group of men responsible for this escaped any charges of piracy and trafficking by destroying the evidence by scuppering the ship on its landing on American soil.

By 1927 Kossula was the last known survivor of this crossing and thus the last known first-generation slave.  Renamed Cudjo Lewis he spent over five years as a slave in Alabama for one of the men responsible for his capture and following emancipation was instrumental in the setting up of Africatown- a settlement of former slaves.

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Hurston visited Kossula, by then widowed and lonely and brought him peaches, melon and ham to get him to open up and used his words to take down his life story.  It is a heart-breaking tale which demands to be read.

That Hurston never found a publisher for this work in her lifetime seems extraordinary.  Cudjo Lewis had been previously interviewed by others (in fact even by Hurston herself) and was known as the last voice of this previous era.  There’s a hint of the suggestion that Hurston’s reputation in her early years had been dented by prior claims of plagiarism which could have rendered her account as untrustworthy.  That this account was put together by an African-American woman would have also limited its publication appeal.  There was also some contemporary nervousness about what Cudjo Lewis had to say.  His most disturbing revelation being that he was trafficked by neighbouring tribes rather than white traders.

Kossulu began his journey into slavery in a barracoon, a shoreside prison where captured men, women and children were stored until deals could be made with the white traders.

Hurston lets Kossulu speak in his own dialect which might seem initially off-putting to the modern reader but as with her later celebrated novel meaning soon becomes clear and the reader is likely to be captivated by the rhythm and poetry of the language.  The actual text of the interviews moves along quickly and is supplemented by probably an equal amount of accompanying material including a Foreword by Alice Walker and an Afterword by Deborah G. Plant and a number of Ossulu’s stories that Hurston, as folklorist and anthropologist took down verbatim.  This is a work which manages to be spine-chilling and endearing and is a thought provoking, always relevant read.

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Barracoon was first published in the UK as in 2018 by HQ.  It is available in paperback.

 

My Top 10 Reads Of 2014 – Part 2 – The Top 5

 

 

 

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  1. What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn (2007) – Read in October 2014

This debut novel did well in various first novel awards when it was published and I’m not surprised as the writing is of a high standard. It starts out with an absolutely captivating central character, ten year old Kate Meaney who covers up her miserable background with her preoccupations of herself as a girl detective, in search of a crime to solve. It’s the mid 80’s and there’s a very good feel for the period. Kate spends hours in a bleak “modern” shopping centre, where she vanishes under suspicious circumstances. The story moves on twenty years and the improved Green Oaks shopping centre becomes the centre character, throwing up ghosts for those who work there, challenging their mundane existences in what they see as fairly dead-end jobs. I found both strands of the story engrossing. There’s some laugh out loud humour and good plot twists.

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    4. 12 Years A Slave – Solomon Northup (1853) – Read in September 2014

The book has had a new lease of life as a result of the Oscar winning film, which I waited to watch until I had finished the book and which very much captures the flavour of this extraordinary memoir. Northup was a free man living in New York. On a trip to Washington he was kidnapped and sold into slavery, ending up at a cotton plantation in the South, by then it has been beaten into him that to reveal his real status would only lead to more thrashing and probable death. He cannot even reveal he can read and write. As a slave it’s relentless work, cruel treatments and thrashings for the next twelve years. I was willing on his plan for escape and bitterly sorry for those left on the Epps plantation. He very effectively conveys the futility of the slave existence and the terror that lived inside them all, knowing each day could be their last. There’s occasional deviations outlining how cotton is produced, how sugar is harvested, which is actually quite fascinating and makes his memoir of interest as a historical document as well as a dramatic story. I am ashamed that I did not know of this book before as I have read much Afro-American writing. Thankfully, the film has brought the book back into prominence and Northup’s words can take their place in the canon of great American writing.

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  1. Dead Tomorrow – Peter James (2009)- Read in October 2014

I know the similar sounding titles get confusing but this is one of his best I’ve read so far. (I think “Dead Simple” is just slightly ahead).  A couple of teenagers with their organs removed are recovered from the sea which develops into a human trafficking plot with a subplot of a teenage Brighton girl whose liver is on its last legs and whose mother is contemplating desperate measures to keep her daughter alive. It is both tense and thought-provoking stuff. We are tantalised by the ongoing plot strand of DS Grace’s wife’s disappearance and Grace’s sidekick Glenn Branson has his part beefed up a little and shows human failings. This is the fifth book of a very strong crime series.

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2 .The Last Town On Earth- Thomas Mullen (2006) -Read in May 2014

This is a thrilling debut. Set in the small American mill-town of Commonwealth, founded by Charles Worthy, a philanthropic mill-owner who wants to offer a fair deal for his workers. All seems to be going well at the tail end of the Great War, with the USA now involved in the combat when a more catastrophic event (in terms of American lives lost) occurs – a Flu epidemic .   Commonwealth decides to go into quarantine and post guards to prevent entry from potentially flu-ridden outsiders. One of the guards is Philip, the Worthy’s adopted teenage son. Whilst on duty he has to make a decision which has a tremendous effect on the town. Mullen has produced a balanced, rich tale with great moral implications and depth, very good characterisation and the plot is engrossing, tense and unpredictable. I loved it. (Just don’t read it when you have the flu!)

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1. The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) -Read in January 2014

I cannot understand how this book has passed me by up to now. If I had read this as a teenager – Wow! Even though my teenage years are long gone this still packs a hell of a punch. Set around 1961-2 in the Bronx, The Wanderers (after the Dion song) are a teen gang obsessed with sex, fighting, staying alive and pop music. In a episodic set of interlinked stories Price so effectively conjures up this group of friends moving towards adulthood. It is shocking, violent, sexy and like many teenagers full of bile for anyone apart from themselves! It does, however, work superbly. It’s unsympathetic, gritty and yet touching. This is certainly one of the best books of the 70’s and my favourite book I read for the first time this year. I loved the characters; Eugene, the stud with a secret; Joey, a victim of his outrageously aggressive father; Perry, home alone with his mother and Buddy whose wrong choices cause him to grow up too fast. (The 1979 film of the same name despite similar themes is unrelated)

So that’s my Top 10 Books of the Year. Okay, nothing in that list was actually published in 2014 but it takes me a while to get round to books. (I did read a couple that did make their first appearance in 2014 but they didn’t make my Top 10 list). Next post will be my favourite re-read of the year. Clue – it’s a non-fiction examination of the two of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood.