The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a debut novel that has both significant pluses and minuses.
The novel starts strong. We are introduced to Hiram Walker (called Hi throughout the novel), a house slave on the Lockless plantation in Virginia. Hi is the mulatto son of his master and his slave mother who was sold years ago. When we first meet Hi, he is driving his white half brother Maynard in a carriage over a bridge. Suddenly the bridge disappears and both Maynard and Hi are plunged into the water. While Hi is struggling to save himself, the selfish Maynard cries out for Hi to help him. Hi isn’t able to do so. Oddly, when he is out of the water, he’s nowhere near the collapsed bridge. Instead he finds himself on the dry land of the Lockless plantation.
Hiram spends much of the middle of the novel doing two things: trying to get his magical power back, and trying to free himself and the people he loves. The Underground Railroad is also interested in Hiram’s powers and how they might be used to transport slaves from one spot to another.
I thought much time was wasted in the novel’s midsection as Hi works to get his power of conduction back. As a history lover, I’ve always thought that the most amazing thing about the Underground Railroad was the fact that its work wasn’t done by magic, but by people using real-life resources to save lives. Coates’s inclusion of magical realism in the Underground Railroad’s operations diminished the accomplishments of those workers for me.
I also lost interest in Hi’s story as more and more characters were introduced. I realize this is Coates’ first novel, but most fiction readers want to feel a consistent connection with a book’s main character. I was unable to recover my interest until the novel reached the end.
Despite its flaws, The Water Dancer has some undoubtably good points. As I’ve said the book has a strong beginning, and the ending was equally good, though I won’t discuss that here. Coates’s narrator Hi also has very profound things to say about slavery. For example, he describes the dependence of whites on their slaves as follows: “The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them–we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.” Lines like that come from writers with real insight and talent.
Still, at slightly over 400 pages The Water Dancer is not a short book, so readers need to decide whether the excellent quotes combined with a strong beginning and ending are worth their time. If Ta-Nehisi Coates writes another novel, I will give it a try because this one had so much potential.