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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.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ venture into the world of fiction, The Water Dancer, is the story of the power of individual and collective memory and how those enslaved channel it to retain their humanity and dignity. At the heart of the book is Hiram, a young boy fathered by a white man, Howell Walker, and a mother who has been sold off into slavery by Howell. Despite the gift of photographic memory, Hiram is unable to recall the details of his mother’s sudden disappearance. This is just the tip of Hiram’s suffering—he and everyone born to his race undergo far greater ignominies at the hands of whites—for he is ordered to be the chaperone for his white half-brother at Lockless, a tobacco plantation and estate in Virginia owned by their wealthy father.
Coates imparts his protagonist with tremendous responsibility in the form of “Conduction”—the ability to transport yourself and others across time and place by the sheer force of memories of one’s own and communal past. It is this potential that renders Hiram a vital collaborator in the network of Underground Railroad. But here’s the hitch—Hiram is unable to yield this facility yet. Rest of the narrative follows Hiram’s journey as he meets his mentor of sorts, Mosses or Harriet (as she prefers to be called) who shows him the force of his gift and how he can wield it to his benefit, and realises that he can secure his freedom as well as of those he cares about. Things are obviously not as easy since any kind of escape from the masters involves mortal danger.
I felt that The Water Dancer would have been more potent if it were shorter. Of course, Coates does furnish his debut with moments of brilliance and intensity, though these occur only occasionally. He writes about the pain and humiliation of slaves, whom he calls the Tasked, without going into the gory details. He chooses to explore the emotional dimension of it instead, although there’s something that I can’t quite put into words, which seemed missing. Perhaps it was depth that I found lacking, which made it seem that I was floating on the surface even as tension roared just beneath it.
I’ve thought for a while that one of the most honest films ever made about the subject of slavery in America is Quentin Tarantino’s Django. Even though the film is a fantasy (much like Inglourious Basterds was), the over-the-top depiction of the brutality of the slave system was, in its essence, completely true.
Having recently re-viewed Gone With The Wind, which President Trump clearly adores, I’m convinced that we need more movies — and more books — that present slavery as it actually was, and not as apologists for the Confederacy want us to see it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates new novel is nothing at all like Django, in the sense that it does not harp on the violence and brutality of plantation life in Virginia. The lead character, Hiram Walker, is the son of the plantation’s white owner and one of his slaves. Throughout the book, which Walker narrates, he refers to the slave-owner (and his owner) as ‘my father’. Much of the story revolves around the destruction of Black families, who were sold off individually as property by slave owners.
While there is little of the blood-letting which Tarantino showed, slavery is presented here as a slow-burning horror. In the end, one feels in addition to rage, a very deep sense of sadness at the pointless cruelty of everyday live in the pre-Civil War American South.
A slavery novel. I cannot claim to understand. Very nicely written. But, somehow, pedestrian. Slavery is bad. African memories exist, and become other things in the stories of America. But I wonder, about the the story featuring a white-lady saviour, without whom, etc., etc. I don't know. Perhaps I'm being unfair. But it doesn"t follow that someone writing about slavery gets a free pass.
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.
I loved this book to begin with, but my interest waned around the halfway mark. From that point on it was inconsistent for me, felt like it had lost its focus, and some potentially interesting characters were not fully developed.
I’ve read a few books about slave history and have always enjoyed their grittiness and often confronting images. The last one I read was ‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead which I enjoyed but didn’t love.
Our main character is Hiram Walker. Hiram lives on a plantation and is the son of the plantation’s white owner and one of his slaves. Throughout the book, which Walker narrates, he refers to the slave-owner (and his owner) as ‘my father’. Hiram has a memory with perfect recall, but he cannot remember his mother, there is a hole in his memory, and he cannot even remember what she looked like.
The story starts off well and I found myself being absorbed into the flow and life of the characters but it started to turn strange when we learn that Hiram has a special power, the power to ‘conduct’ people to other places. For someone that gets involved in helping slaves escape, this is a handy trick. I felt that the addition of the fantastical element seemed to stifle the story a bit, giving a bit of an off-kilter view of things.
The book felt too long for me, I think they could have cut out 100 pages or so and had a more solid story. Although I enjoyed Hiram’s photographic memory, I felt that the parts embellished with the magical realism didn’t fit the harsh realistic and shameful history we were living through.
Overall, not the best book on this topic that I have read but I am glad that I read it.