Review: The Water Dancer

SPL Book Bingo 2022, Book 2

Note: This is the second in a series of posts about books I read for Seattle Public Library’s 2022 Book Bingo. This book could fill any of the following squares on the bingo card: Debut author (if it counts for it to be the author’s debut novel), Blue cover, or Sci-fi or fantasy by a BIPOC author (if magical realism counts)

I picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first novel, The Water Dancer, on a whim when I saw it at the library. I’d read and been moved by many of Coates’s essays but wasn’t even aware he had a novel, so it was a good opportunity, like with The Memory Librarian, to go into a book having a vague idea of what to expect but being prepared to have it thwarted.

Well, when I picked it up I suspected that The Water Dancer would be about slavery, which has been — justifiably, I hasten to add! — a preoccupation of Coates’s in his other writing for some time. Both the slavery that everyone knows about and the long-tail “second slavery” of post-emancipation depredations feature prominently in what may be his most famous essay, “The Case for Reparations.” And my suspicions were borne out almost immediately, but while The Water Dancer is often tough going as you might expect, it’s far less dour than I feared. Coates himself describes it as a story set against the backdrop of slavery, rather than a slavery narrative per se.

Part of this is just that the main character Hiram is the acknowledged son of a white man, and not just any white man, but the master of the house of Lockless in which he serves. He’s enslaved (or, as the book somewhat euphemistically has it, Tasked) nonetheless, but with access to some privileges and aspirations on account of his birth and his immaculate memory which has him occasionally called upon to perform parlor tricks for the amusement of houseguests. But the story never lets us forget how constrained and contingent these privileges are. For all Hiram’s photographic memory, he cannot remember anything about his own mother. And he’s expected to attend to his feckless brother Maynard and even, somehow — despite having no authority over him — rein him in. That Maynard might grow into a responsible master of Lockless, which at the start of the novel is beginning a slow decline, and restore it to its former glory is just one of numerous protective delusions that Hiram observes the book’s white characters clinging to. Hiram harbors dreams of being the next steward of Lockless and (correctly) recognizes himself as a better candidate for the role than Maynard. And on some level the white people of Lockless must see this as well, but they’re unable to acknowledge it.

Hiram is perceptive in some ways and totally blinkered in others for which he’s quick to self-remonstrate. (Perhaps his supernatural memory means he remembers his mistakes and misconceptions even more sharply than the average person.) His almost totally dispassionate narration risks leaving him feeling like a bit of a cipher, personality-wise — the “mask” that he alludes to having up when dealing with white folks never really seems to come down — but the events he’s recounting speak for themselves enough that I don’t think the story would be helped by his being more demonstrative. And then there’s the mysterious ability known as “conduction,” essentially a kind of teleportation, that he possesses but is unable to truly control. In a way, the novel centers around it, but aside from making him a person of interest to various significant parties, it exerts more of a gravitational than a direct pull on the direction of the plot.

I was worried The Water Dancer would feel like homework, but it did not. Coates’s writing is as beautiful and economical as ever, and the plot is gripping and brisk with the forgivable exception of a middle section that dragged on a bit longer and more repetitively than was necessary. I want to avoid spoiling anything, as there were a couple of plot points that I found pleasantly surprising, but suffice to say that I also thought the ending did also tie off several loose threads in a satisfying and graceful way. All in all, Coates’s first novel lived up to the high expectations he set with the rest of his body of work. Recommended!