28 Jun 2020


“When you get to heaven, say you remember me
Remember me and my fallen soul
Remember my poor and fallen soul”

— The song of the Tasked

Set in a declining tobacco plantation in West Virginia called Lockless, The Water Dancer is journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first work of fiction, and unfurls the lives of the “Tasked”, or the enslaved plantation workers, as structured by the “Quality”, or rich, white, slave owners.

Hiram is a Tasked who loses his mother early in childhood to a purchaser outside Lockless and, despite having a photographic memory, remains with no recollections of her. But, the blood of both the Tasked and the Quality flows in his veins and he is adamant in revamping reality in his favour.

From the very beginning, he comes across as a character in his own league and with a mind for mastery. He attracts the attention of Howell Walker, a man of Quality and very high up the ladder, and lands a desirable job at the house of the highborn, close to the man himself: “When I sang the call, I changed my voice to the sound of the lead man in the field, bold and exaggerated. When I sang the response, I took on the voice of the people around me, mimicking them one by one ... I was watched by the white man seated atop the Tennessee Pacer, his hat pulled low, who rode up smiling his approval at my performance.”

Hiram is bought from Thena — a Tasked woman who took him in after his mother was sold and so became his “other mother” — by Walker who, it turns out, is his biological father. Hiram confidently refers to him as “my father” and never “my Master.” And why not? It’s Hiram’s narrative, after all, and he owns it. Hiram lands many opportunities to get closer to his father, so much so that they — a Tasked and a Quality — even seek comfort in front of the same fireplace, relaxing together.

While it skimps on magical realism and psychological tone, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first book of intricate historical fiction shows he is as talented a novelist as an essayist

In no time, Hiram receives validation from his father, for being the responsible son he so devotedly wants to be, when Walker announces Hiram will be Tasked to Maynard, Walker’s son of Quality and Hiram’s stepbrother: “There is so much coming, so much trouble coming for us all, and Maynard, whom I love more than anything, he is not ready. Mind him, son. Mind my boy ... mind your brother.”

By this point, Hiram is aware that he’s unique and his father’s affirmation has strengthened his belief, but the knowledge does not make him rebel; he is a Tasked comfortable in his duty and one who doesn’t disobey — except for when he leaves Maynard to die in the river whilst transporting himself to the shore.

Definitely, Hiram is a man of many qualities — patience, resilience and sensibility — but what sets him apart is a secret supernatural power termed “Conduction.” He can transport himself, and people, from one place to another in mere moments. However, to do so, Hiram must allow himself to be triggered by elusive but powerful memories of his mother. These memories appear in shapes devoid of a face and body, similar to those seen by children in a cloudy sky: “I caught sight of the river Goose, and saw a strange mist coming up off the water — a thin fog and now rain that echoed the day’s dark turn. And there it was, a blue mist coming up, obscuring the far end of the bridge ... and the thin fog had suddenly parted, and there was the moment when I saw her, saw the woman, saw my mother water dancing on the bridge, water dancing out of the blackness of my mind.”

Post the realisation of his supernatural abilities, Hiram is soon sparked with the desire to flee Lockless. In the attempt to be free, he becomes close to the “Underground” — a secret collective that helps slaves escape to freedom. Needless to say, Hiram becomes one of their most valued members for his magical ability, but with a realisation within for the need to master Conduction.

Amongst the few chief members of the Underground, Hiram discovers Moses. This encounter is deeply revelatory, as Hiram realises he’s not the only man able to conduct along and across bodies of water; Moses can, too!

Thus, after full acknowledgement of, but very little control over, his superior capabilities, Hiram seeks training from Moses to prepare for the great escape. Naturally and eventually, Hiram’s power is at his disposal and, this time, he calls upon it and not the opposite. Taking many Tasked along, Hiram transports himself to Philadelphia, the land of the free.

After the final escape to eternal freedom, Hiram’s tragicomic tale — and all those stories of heartbreaking atrocities unfolded over generations of men, women and children — completes itself with an ardent, but undeniably happy ending — Coates reveals Moses to be Harriet Tubman, the celebrated 19th-century political activist who rescued over 70 African-Americans from slavery.

The Water Dancer is an intricately written work of historical fiction. Caged, starved and ill-treated as they were at the hands of their enslavers, the book is a sincere proclamation of life for African-Americans between the 18th and 19th centuries. And it does so without mention of any specific time. Rather, it parades between the past and the present in its exquisite portraiture of what was and isn’t anymore, while also being a magically-driven drama globing around themes of family, love and freedom, each moved by the grotesque realness of slavery.

And when we did appear in the polite areas of the house, as we did during the soirees, we were made to appear in such appealing dress and grooming so that one could imagine that we were not slaves at all but mystical ornaments, a portion of the manor’s charm. — Excerpt from the book

The au courant references to reality — lavish parties thrown by the Quality, secret passageways within royal hallways for the Tasked, Underground Railroads and, of course, Tubman — makes it a thoroughly and accurately researched work of literature, written with overwhelming detail.

However, it unfortunately falls short of moulding in magical realism as charmingly. That, along with shortness of fantasy mixed with unmoving tones of some characters and topped with inconsistent exchange of dialogues, makes it an almost alluring read, but not entirely captivating.

In emotions and their expressions, the whole book feels to be one person, one being. The Water Dancer would have been a fascinating work of fiction, except for the flatness of its plot and shortness of intermingling amongst characters. At best, only Thena and Hiram’s lover Sophia stand out for having uncommon presence, with the exception of Tubman. Although characteristically absent, Rose is, and remains, a paramount figure throughout — first for birthing the magically powered human and, then, for being the trigger igniting his superpowers. The title is a metaphorical tribute to Rose, whom Hiram sees dancing over water with a jar on her head.

Thus, The Water Dancer easily becomes an emotionally educative compilation of densely descriptive short essays written over a series of personal monologues spelling out the harrowing evils of slavery. Words after words speak about pain and loss, but the emotion goes missing somewhere along the way.

The Water Dancer is, indeed, bang-on historical fiction and would have made for a fascinating piece of historical fantasy, if not for the scarcity of, well, fantasy. Nonetheless, Coates shows tremendous potential for being as, if not more, talented a novelist as he is an essayist. His first work of fiction makes for an honourable memoir of the Tasked embedded in Coates’s passion for history, and makes for a reassuring afternoon read.

The reviewer is a development professional, writer and currently training to be a wellness counsellor

The Water Dancer
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Hamish Hamilton, US
ISBN: 978-0241325261

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 28th, 2020