Title: The Water Dancer

Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Summary: Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother is sold away, Hiram is robbed of all memory of her—but gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known. So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the deep South to dangerously utopic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.

Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

The Water Dancer is very much literary fiction—how else do you explain the pomp and circumstance surrounding a publishing darling imbuing a novel about slavery with magical realism? Ta-Nehisi Coates is (and will hopefully remain) an auto-read author for me, but I wasn’t in the right headspace—nor do I think I was even the right audience—for this book. It was beautifully written, but reading it also felt, at times, like walking through wet sand. Dense ideas packed so tightly into expertly wrought sentences that the effort it took to comprehend what was being written almost took me out of the story itself.

Will I recommend you read this book? Absolutely. If you’re a fan at all of Coates’s writing or of literary fiction or just take Oprah at her word, you should definitely pick up The Water Dancer. But this is a novel about slaves, and slavery, and the horrible inhuman ways black bodies were treated and how those same bodies had to crawl up out of darkness to sometimes just get the chance at agency.

As much as I was awed by the unique reimagining of the term ‘conduction’ (and also that utterly beautiful cover), you can’t read The Water Dancer in bits and pieces. It’s a novel that demands your concentration and all of your mental energy. Coates reminds you on every page that, although his story is fiction, the people and stories on which it is based are not. To give anything less than your full attention is to rob the novel of its potential—a potential that’s worth exploring, even if the process is painful.

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