I am always a major fan of magical realism because that’s often what real life feels like – harsh reality mixed with moments of magic and miracles. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first foray into fiction was a huge undertaking – how can a man in 2019 accurately capture what slave life was like in the 19th century? Well, this talented writer (and Oprah’s pick to relaunch her force-of-nature book club) has succeeded by creating a historical fiction piece that allows the reader to walk in the shoes of a man whose life was entrenched with struggle and pain.
The story follows Hiram Walker, an African-American slave, whose white master is actually his father. His mother was sold when he was a small child, and he becomes a butler of sorts to his white brother. Coates perfectly captures the horror and violence of slavery with Hiram and a cast of well-written supporting characters, as well as the smaller but constant indignities slaves were forced to endure. He picks his own terms for this culture: “The Tasked” are the slaves and “The Quality” are the white slaveowners. This new vocabulary allows the reader to feel drawn into Coates’ world, which is also a fantastical one. Hiram learns he has the power of “Conduction,” – the ability to remove himself from dangerous situations.
After several horrific events take place, Hiram is drawn into the world of “The Underground,” where abolitionists and freed slaves (including one famous historical figure) work to rescue those still in bondage. With the combination of realistic characters and a fantasy world where Hiram can basically teleport, this novel becomes both hyper-real and mystical – an effect that ends up enveloping the reader and making them ultimately fully invested in Hiram’s fate.
My only criticism is that the book dragged in parts. Although I appreciate how this long slog is appropriate for the topic of slavery (how else should a book about this evil feel?), there were times when I wished for the action to move along a little bit more quickly.
If “The Water Dancer” is any indication of the kinds of stories Coates is inclined to tell, we’re all in for a treat – his words are immensely moving, powerful, and important. (And Oprah can’t be wrong, right?)
*Free ARC provided by NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an honest review*