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You might not understand the intricacy in the first few chapters but the way this book has been weaved is so beautiful that more insights will come forward as you read through. This book will definitely make you question about the privileges people have this century. I am not a black person living in US to understand the repercussions of slavery but it does emulate the situation a bit in the other parts of the world these days maybe not in the form of racism everywhere but has shaped in a different way in the form of sexism, ageism, homophobia, classism and religious intolerance.
The story of Hiram is so fascinating and it gives you a glimpse of what slavery is, what happens when you try to escape slavery, how life is after the freedom they long for and what kind of sacrifices people had to make just to stay alive.
Taking about ten years to fully realise Ta-Nehisi Coates of course has now come up against the likes of Colson Whitehead and his brilliant ‘The Underground Railroad’ which this novel cannot beat on the inventiveness level, but despite that this is still a good read. The main problem with this book is that the more fantastical element, that Hiram, the main character is someone who is able to ‘conduct’ people (hence Conduction) to other places is what jars with the rest of the tale.
Hiram has a memory with perfect recall, but alas he cannot remember his mother, indeed there is a hole in his memory, and he cannot even remember what she looked like. As the son of a female slave, his father is the Plantation owner, and he thus has a white half-brother, who dies early on in this story. As we read of Hiram growing up so we have a certain sense of realism, but this is always being broached by the fantastical element, which instead of adding to the tale seems to stifle it a bit, giving a bit of an off-kilter view of things. So what we end up with is something that at times does not reach its full potential.
The characters and situations, with regards to the Underground Railroad and the different experiences of slaves from different areas reads as authentic, also this takes in the raping of the land, as the tobacco plantation that Hiram comes from is starting to decrease production due to the soil becoming too eroded. The latter is something that still rankles, as it changed parts of the US completely, and of course around the world this intense farming of one crop has caused serious soil damage. As the plantation is being run into the ground so we see slaves being sold off, and older ones being brought in when needed as replacements.
We read of the brutalities that went on on some plantations and the various relations between slaves and their owners. Coates also brings up here other issues, which are lightly touched upon at a camp, where there are people touting female suffrage, free love, communism and so on, although these are never furthered and thus are left as loose ends. With the Conduction elements so we have something that does jar and seems to not flow with the rest of the story. Such a power supposedly comes from Africa, with its different religions and myths, but somehow has become mixed with Christianity, which we know happens when religions collide, however we get in one place at least, quite a biblical scene that does not fit rightly, whilst what is going on is certainly not biblical; indeed Hiram’s power, which others also have is quite reminiscent of the Harry Potter books, where Harry and others travel via fireplaces. Here is it done by waterways, and you need a guide to take you.
This is this author’s first novel, and as such is very good, but personally I felt that if the fantastical elements were left out, thus keeping this more realistic throughout then this could well have been a modern classic, as although such things can and do work in other books, here it just destroys the fluidity and balance of the story, and decreases some of its power.
I have read quite a bit of his journalism in "The Atlantic" and was interested to see what this foray into fiction was like. The answer was that it is much as expected. He writes beautifully; the book is worth reading for his English prose alone. That having been written, in my humble opinion there was a much better book to be written that left out the magical realism which does nothing to improve and much to diminish the force of the narrative. A much more minor quibble is that there are a couple of important incidents which depend on the availability of a "pistol". For the action to make sense this would have to have been a revolver and, though they had been invented, these were not in general use in the ante-bellum period.
The ornate language used in this book puts us in the time it was set. Not so different that it's hard to follow, just enough to immerse us in that world. The story has been structured like a classical architect would plan an ornate cathedral - both functional and beautiful. I'm glad I read it.
This beautifully written book opens with a slave, Hiram, taking, Maynard, the son of the tobacco plantation owner for a ride in a horse drawn carriage across the bridge which was a route for transporting slaves or taskers, as they are known in the book, south to Mississippi. Something spooks the horse and the carriage plunges the into the icy cold Goose River. During his near death drowning the protagonist Hiram Walker sees a vision of his late mother and visualizes her departure out of his life when she was sold away from him when he was just a little boy. She was sold by the plantation owner who was his own father, Howell Walker which made the recently deceased Maynard his half brother. Thus begins the saga of this young man and his venture into the underground railroad and his quest for answers concerning his mother's disappearance and his special abilities which he believes he inherited from her and his African ancestors. This is a special book with insight into the American history of enslaving Africans. Racism is ingrained in some white folk just as fear of all white people is ingrained in some black folk. This book tries to tackle the last part of this equation from the perspective of the black taskers. I was very moved.
The Water Dancer takes place during the 19th Century in Virginia on tobacco plantation. Written like a memoir, Hiram Walker, the protagonist, recounts his life as a Tasked and member of the Underground Railroad. He is the product of a union between a member of the Quality and Tasked. Hiram's father is the master of the plantation, and his existence is complicated as a result of being gifted with an exceptional memory. This ability serves as an anchor and curse. Hiram can recall everything except the day his mother disappeared from his life. It is here he discovers the power of Conduction!
Hiram Walker is an interesting character because he floats like a leaf on a pond, rather than moving like a river. For large portions of the book, things happen to him, and he fades into the background and acts as a conduit for characters to relay their stories. Hiram is silent and contemplative. His inaction causes the pacing to suffer. He relies heavily on others to kick-start his consciousness. I wanted him to wrench control of his life sooner.
Coates uses memory as a powerful metaphor in The Water Dancer, along with water. Both the Tasked and Quality subsist on memories for reassurance and eschewal from inequities of the time. Memory serves as a vehicle to eliminate guilt and erase pain. From this, an entire community builds a collective consciousness.
Moreover, Coates brilliantly intersects gender and bondage. Although the main protagonist is male, the female characters voice their woes and display depth. Finally, Coates captures the mental and emotional toll of family separation in brutal detail.
Excellent writing overall, but parts of the story dragged. I look forward to more fiction from Coates.
Spinning a tale of survival and slavery, of hope and remembrance, of devotion and obligation to memory, Ta-Nehisi Coates pays homage to history in his first novel, a compelling tale with uneven results.
Known for his non-fiction, Coates at first seems to navigate fiction seamlessly, with passages and reflections deep and brilliant. As the tale progresses, Coates struggles a bit by putting in too much; scenes needed to be tighter. He did much research on this book, as it shows, as he wants to fit in many, many parts. As a first time novelist, and one vested in his story, it is understandable.
The narrator Hiram is well crafted, and brilliant, and all too real, as are the settings and supporting characters. The story crackles most when Moses herself, Harriet Tubman, enters. It could have been gimmicky, but instead, Coates Tubman hums with humanity.
This is a long story that suggests the true power of memory, and the power of never forgetting.