We know Ta-Nehisi Coates for his nonfiction, but his fictional debut, The Water Dancer, is just as stupendous as his previous books. He builds the details of his world drop by drop, layer by layer. By the end, I felt fully immersed, although in some ways I was drowning in sadness.

The story is age-old, and yet told in a completely new way. Set mostly in pre-Civil War Virginia, the main character is an enslaved man named Hiram Walker. Hiram is also the son of his home plantation’s owner, which affords him both minor advantages and major scrutiny.

What Hiram doesn’t quite know is what happened to his mother. He’s 18 years old, and thinks she was sold. But he’s blocked the traumatic particulars. Nevertheless, another woman raises Hiram, despite her own traumas. His life exists at Lockless—in the Fields, the House, the Street, and the Warrens—all places where the enslaved people live and work.

As he grows older, and proves himself both smart and responsible, he becomes the main caretaker of his younger half-brother, the Master’s son. And this young man, Maynard, is a foolish and privileged young man. One night, coming home from a night “on the town,” Hiram and Maynard end up in the Goose River. Maynard is lost, presumed dead. And Hiram finds himself in unexpected places, rather than simply the riverbank.

That night on the Goose shows interested folks that Hiram may have a special talent. The ensuing details of how Hiram becomes part of the Underground Railroad make up most of the book’s story. And, like his ancestors, he may be able to bend time and space to conduct passengers North on the river of memory. He just needs to understand how. All kinds of people have an interest in Hiram fully developing his talent. And yet he still feels tied to Lockless, so it’s up to him to resolve his conflict and decide how to go forward.

My conclusions

Hiram is relatable and multi-dimensional. He’s an ideal and strong narrator, primarily because he’s thoughtful and willing to examine character and situation, starting with his own. I cheered for Hiram and the people he loves at Lockless and in the Underground. I also shared Coates’s hesitations about the white characters, even those who are involved in the Underground Railroad. Their agendas aren’t very far away from the concepts of enslavement.

Coates introduces so much sadness into the story. In the history of slavery, families are almost always ripped apart. Men, women, and children suffer pain, both physical and emotional. The whole of an enslaved person’s life is a combination of forgetting and remembering.

This novel correlates strongly to Coates’s nonfiction, and his ongoing topic of what the bodies of black people bear. But The Water Dancer is also about what their souls bear, and this applies both then and now. And, as hard as this reality is, Coates sprinkles hopeful notes in the story, too. There are moments of joy, closeness, and even some eventual reunions. His main characters have tremendous warmth amidst the sorrows.

This book drew me in like a whirlpool in great raging river rapids. It’s exciting, intense, and unputdownable. In fact, if I wished for more resisters in The Testaments, this book delivered them. And then some! Please go track a copy down and read it soon.

Pair with How to be an Anti-Racist, Between the World and Me, and Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.


Thanks to NetGalley, Random House Publishing Group, One World, and the author for the opportunity to read a digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.