The Water Dancer is the first novel from author and social-justice advocate Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you haven’t read any of his journalistic pieces or non-fiction publications then you are actively ignoring one of the most prominent, intelligent voices of our time.
Set on a decaying tobacco plantation in Virginia during the 1800’s, The Water Dancer is the story of Hiram Walker, an enslaved Black man. The novel is presented in retrospect as Hiram looks back on his life’s journey. This perspective embodies the central role that remembrance plays throughout the narrative.
From a young age, Hiram is aware of his photographic memory; he can recall anything done and anyone met. The sole exception is his mother who was taken and sold when Hiram was a young child; of her there are only shards and scraps. As he gets older, Hiram is forced to be a multi-use tool, ‘tasked’ to serve the plantation owner’s son and made to entertain White guests with memory tricks and parlor games.
Hiram’s journey takes multiple unexpected twists and turns. He encounters fictional representations of historical figures and groups like Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. He is captured and tortured numerous times, and used by various entities. As he gets older, Hiram becomes attuned to a ‘power’ that manifests as a form of teleportation. This ability, known as Conduction, is like accessing a system that exists just beyond reach and perception. Those who remember can tap into this ‘flow’ and act as a conduit, thus giving them supernatural powers. Hiram Walker is one such person.
Thus, memory plays a central yet multi-faceted role throughout The Water Dancer. This is a story about freedom, both physical and psychological, and at the center of this fight for freedom is not only Hiram’s photographic memory, but more so the magnitude of memory itself. Whether through song or dance or food or family, memories and traditions constitute a shared, inherited consciousness. There is indefinable, immeasurable strength and unity when tapping into these traditions and accessing these memories.
‘My power was always memory’ says Hiram multiple times throughout The Water Dancer. What a strong, invaluable sentiment this is in the face of the utmost ugliness humanity can enact.
Review by Joel
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