The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book made big waves across the pond: it was a choice read for Ophrah Winfrey’s Book Club (I’ll be honest; I have no idea what that is), which pretty much guarantees a ready-made audience. And it deserves it. The Water Dancer is a very good book.

The story is set in Virginia during the decline of the plantations that brought untold misery to so many people. Hiram Walker is the son of a slave and the plantation owner. Though his mother is sold away when he is very young, Hiram thrives, after a fashion, due to the kindness of his fellow slaves, his photographic memory and the superhuman ability to transport himself and others across great distances. It’s the teleportation that draws interest from an underground group that has dedicated itself to rescuing slaves.

I’d heard a lot about this book, but when I started reading it, it wasn’t really what I expected. It’s very much a slow-burner, focussing on the literary, almost poetic prose, to bring an unusual fantasy novel to life. Coates has steered away from the physical suffering of the plantation slaves to bring a different perspective: the emotional suffering of separation. The slaves are property, so when the plantations began to fail, the slaves were sold off, with no regard for the wives, husbands or children left behind. For me, this was the most harrowing part of the whole story.

The tale is exquisitely told, the settings are alive, the characters are easy to identify, which is just as well because there are a lot of them, and the quality of the prose makes up for the story’s rather pedestrian pace. It spans many years, but I thought that perhaps, in places, there was more emphasis on the prose than the story itself; it was in these parts that things seemed to grind to a halt. However, pacing is an intensely personal thing, so I imagine many will disagree. Besides, it’s a minor point given the overall breadth of the book and quality of the writing. Every so often, I had to put art down so I could spend a few minutes thinking about what I’d just read. In my opinion, that’s the mark of an excellent read.

As I said, a slow-burner, but an excellent book. Seven out of ten.

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