Book Review: The Water Dancer

Overall Rating: 4.25/5

I have to be honest with you – when I sat down to write this review, I thought it would just flow. After all, this was one of those books that would not let me stop thinking about it. But over and over again, I was left unsatisfied with my words. Each time I reflect on why I enjoyed this book so much, I am reminded of so many layers to the tale that I had not appreciated before, and that in essence is what makes The Water Dancer such a stunning novel. Readers set out on an intriguing, painful, and tumultuous journey with a compelling protagonist, and Coates’ writing serves to illuminate each meaningful detail packed into this important story. As opposed to just providing you with an overview of the book, I have chosen to structure this a little differently, so I can give an appropriate amount of attention to at least some of this book’s notable qualities.

Value of Autonomy

One of the most thought-provoking parts of this novel to me was its exploration of human autonomy and its impact on our perception of events. In the case of The Water Dancer, this theme is significant in light of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement which has sparked long-overdue conversations on misrepresented Black history and systemic racism. Something that has come up in private discussions is how history often attributes the abolition of slavery to white individuals when in truth, the uprising was led by slaves. Coates demonstrates this both explicitly and implicitly in his writing – from Hiram’s powers of Conduction to Sophia’s resentment towards ownership to Thena’s efforts to buy her own freedom to the Underground. Hiram’s journey in and of itself serves as a commentary on autonomy; he starts out as a slave in his own home, only to escape and then return on his own volition to serve his own purposes. Coates strongly rejects the notion of a “White Savior” (albeit making notable room for allies), placing the fight for freedom firmly in the hands of the oppressed, which is both a refreshing and critical perspective.

Identity Under Oppression

Coates does not hesitate to use his figurative pen to provide us with a stark view on the meaning of identity in the setting of The Water Dancer. Identity is crucial to this narrative – in particular, how it relates to an individual’s role in society. From the very beginning, we see members of the population segregated into broad groups such as the “Tasked”, the “Lockless”, the “Quality” which serves to strip away identity and diversity from these groups, allowing for a sharp critique of class dynamics and the societal feeding chain, which is fundamental to comprehending the novel both in its historical and present-day contexts. What is more impressive is how Coates is able to both dehumanize characters through his writing – showing us first-hand the persisting lack of empathy that is foundational to maintaining the established hierarchy – while simultaneously forging their humanity between the lines of oppression.

Conduction

Perhaps the most intriguing and conceptually complex plot element in The Water Dancer is the power of Conduction, and this happens to be where I was personally left most conflicted. On the one hand, I appreciated Conduction as the embodiment of story-telling and its value as a coping mechanism. Moreover, its crucial ties to memory demonstrated the power in knowing one’s self through their history – a seemingly immaterial piece of knowledge denied to the many African Americans who are unable to trace their roots. However, I struggled to see it fit into the story as it stood. I loved reading about Conduction in the context of Santi Bess’ story, which was initially painted as folklore cloaked in dazzling mystique, but I was left perplexed when it was used to carry out the Underground’s missions. I didn’t necessarily dislike it – I just didn’t know what to make of it. It felt as though in a novel rooted in reality, filled to the brim with dynamic characters, moving plot points, and historical references, the actual use of Conduction felt like The Water Dancer‘s deus ex machina – lingering on the border between being powerful and contrived. I know this novel is ultimately fiction and I’m sure many will disagree so please share your thoughts!

There was so much more to The Water Dancer worth discussing that I simply did not have the space to get into but I wanted to touch on topics that I thought were insightful to discuss, especially in light of the racial justice movement taking place in many parts of the world. As for my next post…we’re going to take a bit of a trip around the world with the book I’m reading right now, and I can’t wait to share it with you!

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