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.