Perhaps the most powerful and lasting image in this beautifully executed novel is that of the enslaved – or the Tasked, as Coates prefers to call them – who take their destiny into their own hands. They refuse to suffer in dignified silence, or sing hymns and hope for divine intervention; in fact, Coates’s vision here is a very secular one. Sometimes he seems to be making a subtle dig at faith-based abolitionist organisations; for if the church was helpful in freeing the slaves, it had also been complicit in justifying slavery.
Coates doesn’t shirk from the complex feelings within Hiram, who, alongside his burning anger at great injustice, also misses the plantation, and chafes against the strictures of the Railroad. This is, after all, a coming-of-age novel. Where the book falters is in its second half as it veers into superhero, Marvel-comic territory, with a confusing commingling of magical realism, clichéd phrases and mystical scenarios. While intriguing as a blend of literary and genre fiction, the lasting impression is of one hugely talented author in search of a coherent narrative.
One might say that this novel resembles the work of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, and that would not be wrong: Coates is
a stickler for honouring his elders and placing himself in a lineage of African-American intellectuals. He shares their cadences, their moral intensity, the touches of magical realism. But making these comparisons on their own risks being an act of passive-aggressive critical back-shelving. The Water Dancer is also an extremely traditional novel, in essence a 19th-century bildungs-
roman in the manner of Gaskell or Dickens: there is the same meticulous length, the pathos, the formality of inner voice — and the packaging of polemic (be it the working poor or the enslaved). Like its biracial protagonist, the book has a dual lineage.
Hiram’s exceptional memory is useful to the Underground, but his true value comes when he harnesses his powers of Conduction, a gift so rare as to be spoken of almost as sorcery. One woman working in the Underground – Harriet Tubman, referred to in the novel as Moses – is famed as the living master of it. “The power she wielded had been dubbed ‘Conduction’… for how it ‘conducted’, seemingly at will, the Tasked from the shackled fields of the South to the free lands of the North.” Free and in Philadelphia, Hiram devotes himself to the cause, only to find liberty more complex than he had imagined. As his friend Otha tells him, “finding freedom is only the first part. Living free is a whole other.”
Comic-book narratives often deal with identity and absent parents — struggles that, as Coates has noted, are often rooted in the day-to-day reality of black lives. The Water Dancer is an interesting experiment in blending literary and genre fiction, but one that fails. There’s just too much heavy symbolism at the beginning and too much coincidence in the middle. The emotional arc comes to feel formulaic, predictable — like the nth part of some mega-budget superhero franchise. Which may, of course, have been precisely what Coates intended.
Perhaps the most profound message in The Water Dancer – and the most craftily delivered – has to do with the characters’ dialogue. Hiram learns to read and write, and he is well-spoken. So too are the unlettered enslaved characters: they know and feel what is being done to them, and they express that knowledge and feeling with an eloquence that dares the reader to find fault with it. Yes: the enslaved, many generations of them, were fully human. And what, the novel seems to ask, had you been thinking?
One of the most affecting scenes is when he is reading – and remembering – all the written narratives of former slaves. The novel in my hands is the equivalent, but at the same time it’s a mish-mash of pastiches – Austen-esque social commentary, Eliot-style moral scrutiny, Twain-ish sarcasm and snark and slang. It has the “magic realist” side-order from Marquez or Rushdie or Grass, but it seems like fairy-dust, and distracts from the political urgency. Folklore and superpowers are all well and good, but in an era where black men are shot by police with impunity, it does not progress the debate, but sugar-coats it with mythology.
It’s never clear whether we are meant to read The Water Dancer as a historical novel, revenge narrative or magic realist fantasy. About halfway through Hiram refers to ‘this volume’, in an attempt to bring to the novel the veracity of a historical document. Which is fine, except that this theme never surfaces again, leaving the impression that Coates doesn’t quite know what he wants the book to be. And if he doesn’t know, where does that leave the reader?
A tireless researcher, Coates has immersed himself in the history of the period. A quotation from Frederick Douglass, the slave who became one of America’s great memoirists and orators, provides the epigraph, and the prose in the early section of the book echoes the stately rhythms of Douglass’s classic autobiography. It is almost too polished, in fact. Once the focus shifts to the conspirators and their adventures, though, the tone falters badly. We are suddenly closer to pulp fiction. Coates piles one plot twist after another as the tale plods towards the 400-page mark. His prose sags.