Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel ‘The Water Dancer’ taps into the scourge of slavery

Few writers enjoy the influence that Ta-Nehisi Coates has earned over the past five years. “Between the World and Me,” his award-winning book from 2015, is essential reading for anyone attempting to understand race in America, and “The Case for Reparations,” published in “The Atlantic” in 2014, raised the profile — and possibly the probability — of actual reparations.

Now he has published his first novel, “The Water Dancer,” which considers the power of storytelling and memory to redress the scourge of slavery.

This power is in fact a literal one, called conduction. Coates — who recently started a residency at the Apollo Theater — has written several Marvel Comics, notably “The Black Panther,” and conduction calls to mind the mutant abilities one of the X-Men might possess. Much of the novel concerns the efforts of Hiram, son of a slave and her master, to understand and harness his power to benefit the Underground Railroad. Hiram is also gifted with a photographic memory, the lone exception being any real memories of his mother, who was sold when he was a child.

The book opens with 19-year-old Hiram driving his brother’s carriage off a bridge into a river. His brother dies, but Hiram survives. All he recalls is seeing his mother’s spirit on the bridge moments before he swerved. 

"The Water Dancer" follows the son of a slave and her master.
"The Water Dancer" follows the son of a slave and her master. Photo Credit: One World

As expected from an intellectual like Coates, there are few easy dichotomies here. Cruelty abounds, but few characters are purely evil. Hiram and others have close, complicated relationships with their owners, and even freedom comes with its shackles.

Parts of the plot are muddled and characters’ actions are often difficult to reconcile, but it is an undeniably compelling idea with some moving scenes. The irony is that Coates’s own ability with nonfiction narrative is already close to a superpower, so hopefully his future efforts will be concentrated there.