...his debut novel comes with slightly unrealistic expectations — and then proceeds to exceed them. The Water Dancer, Coates’ meditation on the legacy of slavery, is a work of both staggering imagination and rich historical significance ... Coates re-creates the world of the pre-Civil War South — from the plantations’ cramped slave quarters and ornate parlors to abolitionist gatherings to the jails run by Southern militias — with a journalist’s eye and ear for detail ... What’s most powerful is the way Coates enlists his notions of the fantastic, as well as his fluid prose, to probe a wound that never seems to heal ... Timeless and instantly canon-worthy.
The most surprising thing about The Water Dancer may be its unambiguous narrative ambition. This isn’t a typical first novel, if by 'typical first novel' we mean a minor-chord and semi-autobiographical nibbling expedition around the margins of a life. The Water Dancer is a jeroboam of a book, a crowd-pleasing exercise in breakneck and often occult storytelling that tonally resembles the work of Stephen King as much as it does the work of Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead and the touchstone African-American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler ... Coates writes as if he’s thrown his readers into a carriage and is hurtling them through the woods. The ride is bracing, even if one sometimes misses the grainy and intense intellection of his nonfiction writing. In his earlier books each paragraph felt like a bouillon cube that could be used to brew six other essays. Here the effect is more diffuse, and something intangible goes missing ... One of [Coates's] achievements in this novel is to closely underscore the human particularity of a range of enslaved men and women ... The most urgent sections of this ambitious novel are, for this reader, its more grounded ones ... Coates’s novel sometimes feels as if it were written quickly, and it has the virtues and defects of that apparent spontaneity. Where his nonfiction runs narrow and quite deep, The Water Dancer mostly runs wide and fairly shallow. It’s more interested in movement than in the intensities of sustained perception.
On its surface, [The Water Dancer] is a traditional resistance narrative ... The novel is at its best when Coates is excavating...subtler truths. If Hiram’s awareness that freedom is meaningless without family is one, then Coates’s refusal to cast his black characters as simple heroes or victims is another ... The novel’s publicists have made much of the fact that Toni Morrison’s work inspired Coates’s novel...But The Water Dancer has far more in common with Octavia Butler’s Kindred, another plantation novel that, like The Water Dancer, features a science fiction element ... In The Water Dancer, the purpose of Hiram’s super-power is less clear. Apart from the obvious point it makes—remembering one’s ancestors, no matter how painful, is the key to one’s strength, the key to freedom—it is mostly a distraction ... Like Kindred, whose main character is married to a white man and partially descended from slave-owners, The Water Dancer seems to dwell on interracial ties to remind us how deeply black and white histories are intertwined. In the United States at least, it is not just blood-ties that many of us share, but the ties of a deeply knotted past.
Coates balances the horrors of slavery against the fantastical. He extends the idea of the gifts of the disenfranchised to include a kind of superpower. But The Water Dancer is very much its own book, and its gestures toward otherworldliness remain grounded. In the end, it is a novel interested in the psychological effects of slavery, a grief that Coates is especially adept at parsing ... The paradoxes that existed for both the slavers and the enslaved are skillfully examined ... It is also true, however, that this is a first novel, and reflects some of the inconsistencies of first novels. The writing occasionally lacks vibrancy, despite its great excitements; the dialogue is heavily expository. Almost without exception, when Hi meets a new character, that person recounts his or her own personal history at length. While we’re told early on that people mark Hi as a listener and are compelled to tell him things, these disclosures still feel strained and unnatural ... But the novel’s few weaknesses are offset by its enormous strengths.
While neither polemical nor wholly fantastical, the story draws on skills [Coates] developed in those other genres ... Coates isn’t dropping supernatural garnish onto The Water Dancer any more than Toni Morrison sends a ghost whooshing through Beloved for cheap thrills. Instead, Coates’s fantastical elements are deeply integral to his novel, a way of representing something larger and more profound than the confines of realism could contain ... Despite his extraordinary skill as a modern-day social critic, Coates never intrudes on the stately, slightly antique voice of his narrator. But his understanding of modern-day racism illuminates this portrayal of the 19th century, and it’s not difficult to hear the contemporary echoes of Hiram’s observations.
... a spellbinding look at the impact of slavery that uses meticulously researched history and hard-won magic to further illuminate this country’s original sin ... In capturing Hiram’s voice, Coates uses an elaborate, richly drawn impression of the language of the time ... shine[s] a light from the past through the present. The book, however, offers much more than a relatively easy indictment of history. Exploring the loaded issues of race and slavery have became yet more fuel for today’s culture wars, but an underlying message of liberation through the embrace of history forms the true subject of The Water Dancer ... richly drawn details that showcase Coates’ meticulous, journalism-forged hand with research ... at times feels like a spiritual companion to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. But instead of imagining a literal railroad in place of a treacherous, multi-stop effort to pull innocent people from the depths of slavery, Coates envisions the transcendent potential in acknowledging and retelling stories of trauma from the past as a means out of darkness. With recent family separations at the U.S. border, this message feels all the more timely.
[Coates] loses none of his mastery for conveying complex ideas and, blending a deep knowledge of American history with scintillating wordsmanship ... The Water Dancer exudes...gravity ... his craft shows on every page. He gives this story—and these men and women—the care and space they demand and deserve ... the novel gains a cinematic scope ... This could be a made-for-the-big-screen gimmick. Instead, it reflects the indefatigable strength and skill of those who claimed their freedom at any cost—through luck, guile, and perhaps even the divine ... A haunting adventure story told through the tough lens of history, The Water Dancer is a quintessentially American story of self-creation, doubt, and elevation, with every step threatened by peril and violence.
...[a] richly mystical fiction debut ... Dancer feels like...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 ... 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 ... the plot gets lodged in digressions and cul-de-sac—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.
Mr. Coates smoothly melds the characteristics of comic-book fantasy with his period setting. The writing is fluent and appealing and the dialogue moves effortlessly into elevated pronouncements ... Often when public intellectuals turn to fiction, their storytelling tends to be just another means of working out arguments and ideas: Its allegorical trappings make it seem artificial. In The Water Dancer this problem is most apparent in the conceit of Conduction, which Mr. Coats is torn between treating as an actual superpower that motors the plot and as a metaphor for the process of emancipation ... eloquent but vague. (If the power is activated by memories and stories, why would only select people possess it?) Conduction is tirelessly analyzed but only rarely carried out—which is to say, there’s a lot of talk in this novel, but not enough tale.
... beautiful, wrenching ... confronts our bitter history and its violence and ugliness, which still resonate generations later ... [Coates] weaves a clear-eyed story that has elements of magic but is grounded in a profoundly simple truth: A person’s humanity is tied to their freedom.
At its best, The Water Dancer is a melancholic and suspenseful novel that merges the slavery narrative with the genres of fantasy or quest novels. But moments of great lyricism are matched with clichés and odd narrative gaps, and the mechanics of plot sometimes seem to grind and stall ... For Coates, remembering is not only a personal process — it involves tapping into the collective culture, memory and pain of generations ... The most moving part of The Water Dancer was not Hiram's escape or the escape of the people he loves, but the possibility it offers of an alternate history.
Coates may have turned away from his teachers’ belief that learning about moments of black triumph in the past might change the lives of black people in the present, but The Water Dancer does breathe new life into stories of black Americans struggling to end the country’s long history of racial violence and inequality. The novel adds to the historical scholarship by imagining those parts of the struggle that scholarship cannot access. But it does something else as well: It insists that emancipation was only the first step toward black liberation—that freedom is a process. Indeed, as Hiram observes at The Water Dancer’s end, the war for Elm County, for Virginia, and for the nation is only beginning.
As expected from an intellectual like Coates, there are few easy dichotomies here. Cruelty abounds, but few characters are purely evil. Hiram and others have close, complicated relationships with their owners, and even freedom comes with its shackles ... Parts of the plot are muddled and characters’ actions are often difficult to reconcile, but it is an undeniably compelling idea with some moving scenes. The irony is that Coates’s own ability with nonfiction narrative is already close to a superpower, so hopefully his future efforts will be concentrated there.
...a bit clunky but effective nonetheless. In Mr. Coates’ debut novel, The Water Dancer, he manages to create a mystical journey that explores the depths of loss when familial bonds are severed during slavery. The novel also forces a deeper examination of the racial caste system and the interdependency of blacks and whites in slavery ... it is clear that he’s borrowed much from one of his literary idols, the late Toni Morrison ... Its mysticism is an homage to her. In some places, maybe too much so ... It is too easy to get lost, not because you are swept up in a compelling story, but because you are lost in a thick text ... The Water Dancer is a satisfying, if not the most captivating, read. Mr. Coates knows how to use language to evoke strong feelings in people. Through a work of fiction, Mr. Coates still manages to examine the legacies of slavery that exist today as he has done through his essays and nonfiction works for years.
... in all of these things lives a writer finally able to marry novelistic tendencies to the form. The faithfully dated prose and the constraints of this story’s form as recitation or testimonial allow Coates ample room to both dramatize his arguments and encapsulate them in single lines of cutting dialogue, to carry an entire longform essay’s worth of insights in the arms of a single paragraph-long interaction between two characters. The result is a powerful, if somewhat bloated, book that seeks to do so much. Sometimes, perhaps, too much. But while the moonshot may be off, the fistfuls of firmament Coates is able to bring back to us are a wonder to behold ... In highlighting families, Coates made his characters individuals ... Elements of the adventure novel, of the heist novel, of the romance are all there. But Coates expertly subverts the expectations each of those labels carries. The women in Hiram’s story are not props. They aren’t triggers for the protagonist’s man-pain. They are individuals with their own desires and fears and anguish and hope. They exist with an interiority as profound as Hiram’s. The book does not lack for scene-stealers ... This novel lives within that particular orbit of hurt, the pain attending the rending of families under chattel slavery. And so many of the novel’s most powerful moments stem precisely from its positioning here ... the novel is guilty of trying to say—to be—too many things at once ... There’s an almost cosmic unfairness in the falling-apart of the metaphor-as-entreaty in this necessary and expansive novel. That isn’t to say it would be a stronger work were the magic excised from it. Indeed, it’s precisely this element that most distinguishes the novel and makes it an incisive and memorable and beautiful thing. This is a good book. A really, really good book. But its point collapses beneath the weight of the metaphor. Remembering is what brings us forward, but who is us? ... At points, the book’s knees do buckle under the weight of what it’s trying to do. But it’s cognizant of the foundation on which it stands
... fits in nicely with Coates’ grander project of writing as a corrective exercise to the whitewashing of the nation’s historical memory ... Its greatest strength is how it functions as a counter-myth to the supposed romanticism of the Antebellum South that has so propagated mainstream culture. His world-building of the decadent Virginia plantations is impeccable and comes with its own unique vocabulary, as a way to shake us out of our own complacent understanding of the time period ... After a compelling beginning, the book flounders for several chapters before picking up steam again. The hero’s journey that may work well in Coates’ Black Panther graphic novels ends up feeling like a string of unnecessary delays here. As Hi tries to tap, control, and harness the power of Conduction, there are adventures, losses, triumphs, and setbacks for him and the ragtag team of abolitionists and freed men he meets. It’s the most cinematic aspect of the book, and therein lies its weakness. It treads along like a long, self-indulgent battle sequence in one of the numerous Avengers movies out there. The dialogue can come off as stilted and expository, and the prose is interrupted with theoretical analyses that are intoxicating to read in essays but come off as pontification in fiction. One wishes Coates’ incisive commentary and conceptual clarity would take a step back to allow his characters to be messy, inconsistent, and a tad less self-aware. In short, a bit more human than mythical ... Still, there is more to like than not in a novel that makes a strong case for confronting our individual and collective pasts as a way forward.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is not yet a great novelist. He’s an okay novelist who can write the hell out of a sentence ... a rich, intellectually interesting metaphor, if nowhere near as elegantly deployed as the similar metaphor in Beloved that Coates is cribbing from (It’s a high bar!) ... studded with passages that shimmer with lyricism ... everyone talks in basically the same way, which means everyone talks in essays. And that, in turn, means it is nearly impossible to get a real feel for any of the characters besides Hiram, because all of them are more or less interchangeable: They’re just walking illustrations of various intellectual ideas that Coates would like to parse out ... having given itself over to the goofiness of its own mythology, the book stops in its tracks to let its characters have a Parliamentary debate over the best way to resist white supremacy. The movement between these two storytelling modes is whiplash-inducing ... [Coates] doesn’t have the kind of command over the novel as a medium that will let him meld disparate genres together; he doesn’t seem to care about his characters as people rather than as devices he can use to convey ideas; he doesn’t really understand how to keep a plot moving ... What Coates can do — and what he does better than nearly anyone — is build an argument that resounds with clarity and moral urgency, and craft a sentence beautiful enough to take your breath away. It will be incredible to see what he can do with those tools a few books from now.
Throughout many corners of his writing, I have found Coates to be at his strongest when fully committing to his seemingly natural ability as an empathetic storyteller ... Because The Water Dancer is told in Hiram’s voice, through consistently unfurling memories and scenes, the emotional stakes of the book and its narrative/narrator feel immediate. The best work Coates does here is putting a reader in a position to connect to the jarring impacts of Hiram’s powers ... Because Coates is so good at populating and drawing out a scene, Hiram’s joy at being present in Lockless again is the reader’s joy—having been immersed in the Philadelphia landscape for so long, the break from it feels vivid, like a memory woven into our own history. It leaves a reader wanting a bigger look into what Hiram has left behind, or what a reader has left behind somewhere that cannot be retrieved ... The book does slightly suffer from occasional tonal inconsistency. In some places, The Water Dancer leans into its commitment to an alternate universe; in others it uses a few too many thinly veiled touchstones of American slavery ... In all of his work, Coates is strongly tied to allowing history to do heavy lifting, but the way history is woven into the fantasy world of this particular novel isn’t always as dazzling as the fantasy itself ... How a story of slavery richly depicts or stumbles over the tactile details of its violence can feel secondary to how the story of the human relationships within that violent machinery are rendered. The Water Dancer succeeds in this part of its work. There’s a tenderness not only in the language and story arc, not only in the frantic desires of Hiram and his need to belong, but especially in how gently the novel treats a person’s relationship with memory—and the parts of memory that don’t return as clearly as a person needs them to
No doubt, Coates — a former journalist for the Atlantic — has done his research. In a gorgeous, realist style reminiscent of the masters of 19th-century French literature, he captures with plodding detail and observation the grave, immoral world of slavery ... But writers who set their fictive worlds in bygone eras and manage to eschew polemics for the details of history and riches of imagination must also wrangle into narrative existence all the dynamics that make a novel sing. In The Water Dancer, Coates has accomplished this to varying degrees of success ... Hiram’s love for Sophia — bordering on melodramatic at times — never really hits the right tempo until a little too late. Additionally, while the magical elements of the story elevate Hiram to superhero status in a gloriously satisfying way, they sometimes jar against the realism that underpins the narrative. And yet even as the novel drifts toward its rather predictable, feel-good ending, we continue to root for it. Because, after all, we are still living in a world that needs a book like this to be written, to join the centuries-long lament against the lasting, ever-damaging effects of slavery.
Coates, the celebrated essayist who is often compared to James Baldwin, clearly thought that, like Baldwin, he could write fiction as gripping as his nonfiction. He tried, he gave it a decade of his life, but he definitely failed ... pretty much a mess from beginning to end ... The main flaw with the novel The Water Dancer is Coates wrote it to sound and feel like a novel ... told with the deliberate gravity of a writer who believes he's writing a major work of fiction ...It's as if Coates did not want the reader to be uncertain about the status of the work. It's not an essay, nor a historical document; it's a serious American novel. Page after page, the language insists on this ... The only 'respite' from this stiff, stilted, novelistic language is when Coates switches to his essayist mode and describes (in a monologue, of which there are too many in this book, or in exposition) an aspect of American slavery that clearly throws light on an aspect of the culture of our times ... I could feel my hand turning every one of its 400 or so pages ...
Coates’s love of comics and his contributions to the Marvel empire are apparent in the epic daring of this tale, its allegiance to the fantastic and mythical. Yet, as in his non-fiction there is a solid grounding in brutal reality, here reaching back into history, in particular the era of the American civil war. Although at times the research lays heavily on the first-person narrative, impeding on the delicious flow and natural lift of Coates’s writing, it does offer fresh insight into the never-ending labyrinth of a terror that has broken the world ... It’s not always easy to navigate this terminology, with its imposed, possibly ironic capitalisations and cumbersome effect, but I do love a novel with a language, and it’s an important element in Coates’s wider project ... is not a novel of natural virtuosity or masterful ease. Despite some beautiful description and an elegance of tone, it is tentative, almost withholding in its scene-setting, its characters don’t quite lift off the page, and there is occasional idiomatic misjudgment in its dialogue. Drenched in centurial sorrow, the voice of the tale nevertheless has a piercing resonance, reminding us of the imperative of continuing this painful archaeology, not just to honour those who were tortured, murdered and abused, but to understand its impact on our troubled contemporaneity ... A transcendent, arresting work from a crucial political and literary artist, now with an expanded repertoire.
If the power of fiction is to transport readers to a world they otherwise couldn’t imagine, The Water Dancer is a smashing success ... Coates’ first novel dazzles with a story firmly grounded in the harsh realities of slavery, yet elevated by a modicum of mysticism ... this is a book that needs to be experienced. Readers need to find a quiet place and lose themselves in it, letting Coates’ words work their magic as he tells a tale about 'the awesome power of memory ... how it can open a blue door from one world to another' ... t’s a remarkable debut novel that reminds us in a fresh way why it’s so important we remember all of humanity’s stories — from the depraved to the glorious.
... heartbreakingly powerful ... If you’ve read anything by Coates, you already know that he is a phenomenal talent, one of the best writers of his generation, both craft-wise and conceptually. Few have captured the African-American experience as completely and captivatingly as he has; it only makes sense that his fiction would have similar sentiments to express. That’s a big part of what makes this book so powerful – the energy that Coates brings, the knowledge and the passion … it shines from every page ... features page after page of powerful narrative rendered in sizzling, sharp prose. There’s a toothsome quality to Coates’s prose that lends itself perfectly to a story like this one, a tale of undeserved pain and power retaken. The harsh bleakness of the lives of the Tasked is rendered with unforgiving detail, while the more mystical aspects of the narrative are offered up wreathed in a gauzier, but no less meticulous manner ... Coates shines the burning beacon of his imagination onto that truth, generating a story that is a challenging mix of brutality and beauty – it is rapturously readable and straight-up compelling as hell.
... a brilliant and magnificent work of pain, progress, and power ... Coates has taken the story of slavery, the Underground Railroad, and the horrific oppression of black people at the hands of whites, and turned it into an allegory for what we are capable of when we own our own stories and memories. The power of The Water Dancer lies in that reclamation, and it is a novel we need right now.
Because Coates knows this time period and territory so well, it allows him to pour all of himself into the prose. The Water Dancer is as illuminating and awe-inspiring as a falling star, soaring by at a similar clip. It’s rich with detail, but not overwhelmed with it. There’s just enough to urge you forward to the next page ... The book’s only hiccup is a holdover from Coates’ other work as a writer of comics...'The Conduction' is a kind of supernatural force that transports him to key moments in his life and back again. Even as it works as a perfect metaphor for the ways in which Black people are forever connected to and frequently exhausted by the weight of the past...it also distracts from the story. The Water Dancer might be built around frequent appearances of 'The Conduction,' but the power trips up an otherwise brilliantly crafted novel.
With his exquisite writing, Coates delivers an adventure tale steeped in American history ... Hewing close to these historical facts brings an authenticity to the story ... Through his weaving together of these stories, Coates brings a sense of humanity to the history. His alternative terminology might seem like simple changes in vocabulary, but the effect is to lift the story above the one we read about in our history books, the one we all think we know so well ... As Coates imparts a tale that is richer and fuller than the one gleaned from schoolbooks, he implores the reader to approach it with a fresh eye and an open heart. He lays open the ramifications of this history and its impact on both the Quality and the Tasked, for both were affected by the corrupt system.
... a staggeringly good book ... The style of Coates’ writing is elegant and 19th century, echoing the careful, thoughtful language of slave narratives ... Coates emphasizes slavery’s profound insult to human dignity. Where Colson Whitehead details grotesque physical punishments, Coates accentuates slavery’s less visceral evils ... Ta-Nehisi Coates has long been among America’s most clear-eyed scholars of race and racism. The Water Dancer is a masterpiece built within that clarity. Its story is vivid, compelling, and ultimately satisfying. It is everything we might have hoped for in a novel by Coates, even as we felt we had no right to expect half so much.
... an accessible, intelligent work ... Coates builds upon recent and traditional African American literature while succeeding in mixing genre. He stays loyal to his characters and through evocative language, utilizes genre elements to elevate his key themes ... Coates uses a poet's prowess to invent a lexicon of proper nouns that recast the slave narrative ... These terms not only delineate Coates' universe in a memorable way; they are pregnant with thematic meaning and reinvigorate a discourse that has become familiar, and perhaps evening tiring, to some Americans ... Compared with other contemporary novelists who use alternative forms and multiple points of view, Coates' toolbox might seem small. But through Hiram and his adventures, Coates uncovers an uncomfortably clear looking glass for America's history and current time ... Coates doesn't preach or condemn, but entertains and informs, illuminating the African folklore that shaped early African American life in which culture proliferated despite bondage ... lacks Morrison's inventive leaps in time that keeps us riveted, as if we're watching a piece of performance art. Coates writes long, giving us play by plays of Hiram's days where a more seasoned novelist might have summarized or omitted some of the over 400-page narrative. In addition, the characters all seem to know Hiram is the main character; they offer him unsolicited advice or information and confirm things he was just thinking, rendering portions of the dialogue to read more like a roleplaying game. But whereas Morrison's Song of Solomon core image is doomed flight, The Water Dancer soars as a triumph as readers piece together Hiram's lost memories and discover how he learns to dance.
[Coates] brings his considerable talent for racial and social analysis to his debut novel, which captures the brutality of slavery and explores the underlying truth that slaveholders could not dehumanize the enslaved without also dehumanizing themselves ... Beautifully written, this is a deeply and soulfully imagined look at slavery and human aspirations.
Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency ... An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.
Coates (We Were Eight Years in Power) makes his ambitious fiction debut with this wonderful novel ... In prose that sings and imagination that soars, Coates further cements himself as one of this generation’s most important writers, tackling one of America’s oldest and darkest periods with grace and inventiveness. This is bold, dazzling, and not to be missed.