“All water has a perfect memory,” the late Toni Morrison once said, “and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” The young narrator of Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ richly mystical fiction debut is blessed with a perfect memory too; born into Virginia slavery, Hiram Walker is 19, with uncommon gray-green eyes and a knack for holding every moment in his mind like a photograph. There’s only one incident he can’t recall, and isn’t at all sure that he wants to get back to: the day his mother was taken away.
In The Water Dancer‘s opening pages, she returns — this time as a phantasmal figure on a stone bridge, her hips dipping and swaying to invisible music, an earthen jug “fixed on her head like a crown.” The reason for her sudden reappearance eludes Hiram, though it seems to portend what comes next: a plunge off the bridge into the unforgiving river below, and the drowning death of his doltish half brother and future master — a man placed above him merely by the grace of his white skin.
If dabbling in magical realism feels at first like a strange turn for a writer and essayist considered to be one of the leading voices of black intellectualism in America, it’s actually a pretty neat fit for his résumé: After the release of the searing 2015 memoir Between the World and Me — and the avalanche of awards and genius grants that followed — Coates chose, out of everything, to write a Black Panther comic-book series next. (Can you blame him for wanting to get lost for a minute in pure fantasy?) Dancer feels like a natural bridge between those two projects, and the product of a lot of carefully considered passion, too. Nearly every paragraph is laced through with dense, gorgeously evocative descriptions of a vanished world and steeped in its own vivid vocabulary: Slaves are the Tasked; masters are Quality; those sent down to be sold are “gone Natchez-way.”
The other constant is pain; not just the hurt of a motherless boy whose white father cares for him only conditionally, pleased by his handiness and quick brain, but the much broader stain of slavery — the constant ache, he confides, “of being born into a world of forbidden victuals and tantalizing untouchables — the land around you, the clothes you hem, the biscuits you bake. You bury the longing, because you know where it must lead.”
Though it’s easy to get lost in the lushness of Coates’ language, Dancer sometimes misses that particular novelistic trick of telling a story that truly sweeps you up; the kind so compelling it almost makes the pages turn themselves. Even as Hiram embarks on a sort of Horatio Alger adventure from the repressive South to the free North via the Underground Railroad, encountering heroes and villains and becoming an integral member of the resistance along the way, the plot gets lodged in digressions and cul-de-sacs — leaning heavily on blue-mist atmosphere and characters who speak less like humans than oracles in long, lyrical turns. Hiram’s supernatural gifts, too, feel a little bit apart from it all, and maybe even unnecessary. There’s already so much ordinary magic in his world. B+