This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The best nonfiction writer of our generation makes his fiction debut with this intricately constructed novel about slavery in America. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s voice is distinctive and powerful, and this book is one to cherish. For fans of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad
and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black
. — Mary S.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is not the first modern novelist to use the supernatural as a metaphorical device for exploring the American slave trade. Colson Whitehead’s eponymously titled novel about the Underground Railroad is the most recent to do so, but writers like Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward, and Octavia Butler utilize magical tropes to tremendous effect in masterful books like Beloved
, Sing, Unburied, Sing
, and Kindred
. As Constance Grady notes in her Vox review of The Water Dancer
, integrating the supernatural — hauntings, superpowers, time travel — into otherwise realistic historical fiction demonstrates that “slavery is such a monstrous evil that in order to understand it fully we need the supernatural to explain it to us.”
In Coates’s take on the supernatural, Hiram, the young slave at the center of The Water Dancer
, has two remarkable abilities: first, he has total recall (with one major exception); second, he’s capable of Conduction, or the ability to transfer himself and others long distances across or beside bodies of water. Hiram’s talent for Conduction makes him a natural candidate for the Underground Railroad, and much of the novel concentrates on his escape from slavery, subsequent education in Conduction, and attempts to rescue the two women he loves from bondage. Interestingly, despite Hiram’s sensational powers and the gripping rescue/revenge plot (a reminder of Coates’s excellent work on the Black Panther series
), the narrative frequently pauses for more Atlantic
-style discourses on the brutality of slavery. Critics seem divided on this, with some, like Dwight Garner of The New York Times
, wishing for more of Coates’s trenchant analysis of slavery’s legacy, and others, like Kirkus
and NPR reviewer Annalisa Quinn, arguing that the monologuing disrupts the novel’s forward momentum.
For us, any narrative hiccups in The Water Dancer
are more than compensated for by the consistent elegance of Coates’s prose, the audacity of his premise, and his ability — on display in Between the World and Me
and We Were Eight Years in Power
— to make a riveting intellectual and emotional case for the residual cruelty and inequities of America’s founding slave economy. Coates may not be the first talented author to blend the real with the unreal to better reveal the horrors of slavery, but he does so with great knowledge and imagination. With its innovative language and clearly articulated vision of the Antebellum South, The Water Dancer
is a welcome addition to the growing canon of American literature that contends in fiction with pain and consequences that we, as a nation, refuse to engage with in reality.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here