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  • Writer's pictureMandy McHugh

The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates: A Review

I picked up The Water Dancer upon the recommendation of a good friend and went into it not knowing a thing about it besides the solid reviews. Hiram has the ability to remember anything, except for his mother. Because of this, he's taken up to the house by his white father, taught to read and write and charged with being the voice of reason for his brother Maynard, who his betrothed describes as "a true boor." After his untimely death, his father sends him back to the Tasked, and Hiram's life changes in ways he never anticipated. I don't know what I was expecting. A fantasy set in modern times, maybe, based on the genre listing. A boy with an extraordinary gift. I was not expecting a beautifully executed, taught and heart-wrenching literary journey through the past. The Water Dancer was insightful, and oftentimes, a difficult read. It's the type of book that's supposed to make you uncomfortable--with your unwitting prejudices, with the historical sins of the past, with the current state of affairs when you realize how little we've progressed since the Underground was established. Coates' writing is effortless and engrossing. It is easy to pick this up for a few minutes and have a few hours go by in the blink of an eye. Parts of this book reminded me of V for Vendetta, especially Hiram's induction into the Underground, but mostly this is a standalone work that delves into the lives of both sung and unsung heroes helping slaves find their freedom. The danger and risks are palpable, and no character ever truly feels safe or above the fray. Similar to others in this historical fiction genre, oral storytelling tradition is an important aspect of the tale, for the songs, for the way the narrative is framed, for the history written in the structure. And while this isn't my typical reading preference, The Water Dancer moved me in a way that a book hasn't in a very long time. 10/10 would recommend to anyone with a penchant for historical fiction, slave narratives, literary fiction, or anyone who wants to read a beautifully-tragic story, masterfully told.


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