Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage on a Virginian plantation. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her – but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. The brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.
So begins the unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.
So many of you have sent me a message about how much you loved The Water Dancer and I can really see why. A slave narrative that delves into all the usual themes including familial love and the destruction of the black family but with a sci-fi twist.
But, I have to be honest with you all…this missed the mark for me.
And after a few days of reflection, I have finally figured out why. When I first finished it, I was completely thrown as to whether I had read the right book. Whilst, I can appreciate the writing was beautiful in some places and the plot was unique, it just didn’t really live up to the hype surrounding it.
That was the issue.
The quote on the front cover of my edition is by Oprah Winfrey and says:
“One of the best books I have read in my entire life. I haven’t felt this way since I first read Beloved.”
Now I need you to understand that with that one quote, for me, I am expecting greatness. Not just greatness…a literary masterpiece. A novel that will leave me completely breathless and thinking about it for years to come. Beloved was all that and more for me.
The only way I can describe it is by explaining that Toni Morrison, for me personally, is like the Messi or Ronaldo in Literary world. Her literary work is pure greatness and to compare a book to possible one of Morrison’s greatest novels ever written…not only have you got me intrigued, I’m now expecting a lot.
Which is why I was so disappointed after I finished reading it. If I hadn’t seen that quote, I probably would have really loved the novel – really and utterly loved it.
For me, the writing in places felt clunky and overly descriptive. The first couple chapters in particular were very confusing. It felt like I was climbing a hill and when I finally made it to the top, there were suddenly a couple ditches and fallen logs that I had to climb over. I guess, there was almost some kind of beauty in the struggle of trying to understand what was going on. But, I just got very irritated, very quickly.
Normally, if I don’t like a protagonist I can look past it and still make an informed judgement about whether the book was great or not. However, I found Hiram Walker very irritating. I just wasn’t connecting with him but maybe that has something to do with the writing. Once I struggled with the writing, it was just downhill from there.
The main fantasy element of the novel called conduction just felt a little underdeveloped. It took me a while to understand how it worked and I just felt like so much more could have been done with it. That being said, I loved how unique it was. I think I’ve made it quite clear that I’ve become a huge fan of fantasy novels so this was such a huge plus for me. I think the conduction element of the book only began to really become more intriguing towards the end of the novel which is far too late in my opinion. It needed to be more developed and nuanced throughout the novel.
Whilst there seems to be a lot that made this novel miss the mark for me. There was also quite a lot I liked about it.
Sophia, Hiram’s love interest, saved the novel for me. Her determination to be an independent woman in a world that is determined to keep her enslaved because of race and gender, was simply inspiring. Black women are often at the bottom of any hierarchy but she refused to let it define her and regardless of the situation she was in, she fought for her own freedom in her relationship with Hiram.
At the heart of this novel, is a story about familial love. It’s heartbreaking to read about the destruction of the Black family but yet there’s undeniable understanding that the Underground Railroad was formed as a way to keep families together. It was to stop slave masters from splitting up families. We saw this with so many of the characters within the novel.
The spiritual element of the novel was beautifully woven into the story. I loved the parallel to the story of Moses in the bible, in regards to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. I would have liked to see more about Harriet because there was a lot that was hinted at but never directly spoken about. I also liked the weaving of West African mythology with links to Yemaya, the Water Goddess.
“It’s a story,” she said. “Was a big King who come over from Africa on the slave ship with his people…killed all the white folks and tried to sail back home…he see the white folks arm is coming for him with they guns and all. So the chief told his people to walk out into the water, to sing and dance as they walked, that the water-goddess brought ’em here and the water goddess would take ‘em back home.” – Sophia
Also, Coates never used the word ‘slave’ in the novel. It was something that hit me the moment I finished it and left me reeling.
How do you write a slave narrative but never use the world slave?
That in itself, is not only amazing, but incredibly profound.
Coates replaces the words ‘slave’ and ‘master’ with terms ‘Tasked’ and ‘Quality’. I had to research why and Coates says that the word ‘slave’ is dehumanising and really and truly, that’s what slavery was. It’s why there’s been a massive push to stop using the word slave in regards to slavery and start saying that Black people were enslaved.
Through his active decision not to describe Black people as slaves, he brought to life the humanity of those that were enslaved and I think that’s why it resonated so much with people. And this is why I gave it a higher rating than I would normally give a book like this. This small but simple action said so much about the way the world views slavery and how we should be looking back at it.
The theme of memory being life is powerful and something that a lot of neo-slave narratives address. Many of the slaves that revolted could remember their life before they were enslaved. They remembered freedom. To remember gave them the strength to demand retribution and to set themselves free.
For those that couldn’t remember or were born into slavery; it’s all they’ve ever known. It is seen as more of a risk to revolt for something that seems more like a dream than a possibility.
Conduction being possible because of memory is one of the reasons why I felt like I wanted more to be done with it. We see Hiram’s freedom once he remembers what happens to his mother. The part of him that sought his father’s approval and kept him enslaved, disintegrated with every memory of his mother that was recovered.
So clearly, if the memory of freedom wasn’t available to risk running away or revolution, then it was determination to keep your family together. It was the love you have for your parents, siblings, partner etc that forced you to seek out freedom. Hiram’s memory of his mother helped him gain his freedom, not just physically but most importantly, mentally.
There is a definitive message of not allowing your past or even your current situation define who you are because that’s when you allow it to control you. It’s difficult because memory has so much power, more power than we give it credit. It can be traumatising to relieve such horrors and thus, it’s harder to just eradicate the way you felt in that moment.
However, with this theme and his refusal to use the word ‘slave’, Coates is emphasising that we need to use the horrors of slavery, that have inflicted mental scars on the Black community, as fuel to bring about change. Especially, in the US, he seems to be suggesting that remembering a horrific past can be painful and traumatising for those involved but we can’t let it define who we are.
You are more powerful than your memories.
I can see why Oprah has compared it to Beloved. It is very similar in terms of delineating memory and bearing witness. However, I think Coates really carved his own lane with this novel. I’m aware that this is his debut fiction novel so I’m very excited to see his next pieces of work. Despite the clunky writing, there’s a lot of beautiful messages woven into these pages.