Current Issue #477

Book Review:
The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer

Best known for his poetic and politically charged reportage, American writer Ta-Nehesi Coates wades into the world of fiction with his first novel.

Growing up on a past-its-prime tobacco plantation in the ‘coffin’ of Antebellum Virginia, Hiram Walker is the son of the estate owner and a mother he can scarcely recall – despite possessing an otherwise prodigious memory.

Hiram, like his mother, is one of ‘the Tasked’, whose exploited labour and lives underpin the wealth, comfort and veneer of civility of the white ‘Quality’, one that barely masks the brutal truths of the system.

Hiram exists uneasily between these two worlds, until an accident sees him drawn into the secret war of the Underground Railroad as a supernatural ability begins to manifest itself: the rare and whispered-about power of ‘Conduction’.

Here, Coates blends carefully researched historical fiction with the tropes of the superhero origin story (Coates’ previous forays into fiction have included runs of Black Panther and Captain America for Marvel Comics). In some inspired bits of prose, Coates presents Conduction as, on one hand, a tool for physical liberation and, on the other, a link to an inheritance and future much deeper than the stolen riches of his white slaveholding ancestors.

As the fault lines of the Civil War and the spectre of white supremacy gain renewed traction in Trump’s America, Coates offers a reflection on cultural memory, humanity and the gnawing, ongoing injustice of slavery that is, sadly, often forgotten.

Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

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Walter is a writer and editor living and working on Kaurna Country, and The Adelaide Review’s Digital Content Producer.

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