Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.
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.
...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.
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.