Great social commentators don’t necessarily make great novelists, no matter how powerful their writing and insight. Ta-Nehisi Coates is an accomplished writer and an important contemporary voice, but this is very much a debut novel – albeit a promising one.
It’s probably been said elsewhere, but Coates picks up where Toni Morrison left off. The emotional / psychological / spiritual ruin of slavery; the deep never-healing inner personal and familial wounds; the burden of loss, grief, hatred; the trauma of children, parents, partners ripped away to be sold off, never to be seen again. Morrison’s themes are his themes, and her raw material is his too.
Set on a failing tobacco plantation in pre-civil war Virginia, The water dancer presents a fictionalised narrative that incorporates real events and individuals, namely the Underground Railroad, the secret network that enabled people to escape out of slavery to the free north. The story is built around the development of Hiram, the narrator, from traumatised motherless child, to silent dutiful house-slave, to daring outlaw, to… um, supernatural liberator.
The early chapters of Hiram’s childhood and youth are excellent and really moving – the writing is gorgeous, it’s emotionally resonant, and the decaying setting and hubristic tragedy of the land and human lives laid waste by avarice are drawn beautifully. This would have worked perfectly well as a straight tale of self-discovery, epiphany and escape, the hero emerging through trials to triumph over the odds. It’s a well-worn narrative but it’s stood the test of time for a reason.
But no. The author steers the novel wildly off course with an ill-advised plunge into magic realism. Rather than making a gruelling journey from south to north involving immense danger and hardship, escapees can be teleported to freedom via a mysterious psychic miasma. You wade into a river in Virginia, a spooky blue fog descends, spectral figures of ancestors and loved ones appear, and hey presto, you emerge a free man in Philadelphia. Hiram is an unexceptional character but he does have a photographic memory, and somehow (don’t ask me how) he discovers that this also allows him to conjure this wonderful phenomenon at will – which he learns from none other than Harriet Tubman. (And at this point I totally lost faith in the novel.)
I have two problems with this. In narrative terms it’s really weak. It’s like Pam Ewing’s dream in ‘Dallas’. Secondly, it seems somehow disrespectful to the real-life unknown unsung heroes of the Underground Railroad, who risked and indeed sacrificed their lives helping slaves escape. To me, Harriet Tubman simply magicking slaves to safety in the north is a baffling take. I don’t know. The author has obviously a far far deeper historical and personal understanding of the whole subject than me, so he must have had his reasons – but they’re a mystery to me. Either it should have been a pure magic realism novel, with all the colourful teleportations and mental super-powers the hero could muster, or straight historical fiction. I’d have voted for the latter, personally.