One World / Author photo by Gabriella Demczuk
Ta-Nehisi Coates plays with his strengths with The dancer of the water, his first foray into narrative fiction. Set the story in a time and place that you know well: before the American Civil War. It is a period in the history of our country that has explored most of his writings, in particular the essay "The Case for Reparations" for Atlantic. And he addressed it in his National Book Award winner Between the world and me, using it as a starting point to deepen the ongoing degradation of blacks by institutions and modern citizens.
For all The dancer of the water, Coates puts those same feelings in the mouths of his characters, especially Hiram, a young mixed-race man born in slavery in Virginia. We follow Hiram from his days working as a servant for his half-brother piglet to his job freeing other enslaved people as part of the Underground Railroad. In a touching scene, Hiram remembers attending a family dinner while living among emancipated blacks in Pennsylvania. As the evening closes, one of the children starts playing the piano.
"Watching that little girl encouraged in her activities, rewarded in whatever genius she had," writes Hiram, "I saw everything that had been taken from me and everything that had been taken so regularly by millions of colorful children educated to the task. But more than this I saw, for the first time, colored people in that true freedom … for which I was hungry. "
Since Coates knows this period well and this territory, he allows him to pour everything into prose. The dancer of the water it is as illuminating and astounding as a falling star, flying towards a similar clip. It is rich in details but not overwhelmed. That's enough to get you to the next page.
The only drawback of the book is a suspension of Coates' other work as a comic book writer. See, Hiram is endowed with something called "The Conduction", which is a kind of supernatural force that transports him to key moments in his life and vice versa. Although it functions as a perfect metaphor for the ways in which blacks are forever connected and often exhausted by the weight of the past, it also distracts from history. The dancer of the water it could be built around the frequent appearances of "The Conduction", but the power stumbles in an otherwise brilliantly realized novel.