I really wanted to love this book. I read Coate’s We Were Eight Year In Power back in 2017 and there were no other books that matched its power that year. It was amazing. A set of essays about how the first black president of America had affected the country and, in particular, led to the revitalisation of white supremacy, it set out a powered and impassioned argument that was impossible to ignore. Coates received praise from all corners (well, maybe not all – Trump is in office) – and was compared by many to the late, great James Baldwin. I could see why. In an era where voices like Baldwin’s are needed almost as much as they were during his own time, Coates was the strong, calm, and measured writer we’d been waiting for.
I was, then, excited to dig into his first foray into fiction. And I was also completely unsurprised to find that this first foray would focus on slavery. Coates has repeatedly made clear the connections he sees between America’s past and its present, so it made total sense that he would start his fictional career by going back to where it all started. Through his protagonist, Hiram, he invokes well known historical figures such as Fredrick Douglass. In some of the secondary characters, he goes far enough to simply name them. When a character called Harriet appears in the novel, it would be almost impossible not to notice how her backstory dovetails with that of a certain Harriet Tubman.
It is a huge topic to take on in a first novel, and Coates hasn’t shied away from also taking on some pretty huge characters. And often, it works well. Coates does a stunning job of representing the dignity and poise with which the enslaved faced up to the horrors of their situation. He paints the bleakest of existences, the lost loves, the spiritual and sexual torture, the outright hypocrisy, and manages to show his cast facing up to these and still coming out the other side with their pride intact. And in the sections of the book when he delves into the effects that the splitting up of families had on the individuals involved, it is dealt with so well that it is impossible not to be moved.
Hiram’s romance with Sophia is also dealt with masterfully. From the initial attraction, to their early attempts at some sort of relationship while trying to avoid the eyes of their ‘masters’, all the way to their realistic realisations of what love means when all avenues of your life are controlled by others, this is a relationship that you feel in your bones. It sums up one of the central tragedies of slavery; their lives were not their own.
So there is so much here that works, so much that makes it a good first novel about a subject that, if treated delicately, comes with a natural emotional pull. Coates gets so much right. But I was, personally, distracted by one of The Water Dancer’s central tenets. Hiram, like Harriet, is bought into the Underground Railway because of a special ability he has. In the novel, this is known as conduction – but in the most basic terms, it appears to be a type of supernatural skill that is close to time travel. I spent a lot of the novel trying to figure out exactly what the point of this was, and why it was necessary in a novel that already had plenty to keep you interested. In the end, the only reason I could see for its inclusion was as some kind of symbol of how much people were up against in this era. Even with something that marks them out as special, as a unique and powerful person in their own right, they were still unable to escape the basic fact that they weren’t the ones who had the final say over their future. If that was the point, I don’t think it was needed. The story of Hiram, his many escapes and recaptures, his losses, and his fights to be with those he loves, was enough.
Any Cop?: Despite my difficulties with the conduction element of the book, it was still a riveting read at times. The characters are brought to life in a way that only the best writers can. Sophia, particularly, feels vibrant, real, and a tragic example of what was lost. And there are times in The Water Dancer when the emotion is so convincing, so true, that you will be totally lost in the narrative. But then, if you’re anything like me, the conduction will rear its head again and you will be pulled out of the action for a little while. But, then again, maybe I’m just missing something. I advise you to give it a read and find out for yourself.