Reviews

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

mmlz's review against another edition

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3.0

DNF. Clearly, Coates is a talented writer but the tone of the novel seemed out of harmony with the material. I can see why some people really enjoyed this, but I couldn’t get past the flowery prose and into the story. Cool concept, but the style just didn’t work for me

daniorlo's review against another edition

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3.0

There was no peace in slavery, for every day under the rule of another is a day of war.


This book took me over two months to read, and the whole time I attributed it to my shortening attention span (too much time on social media?). And now after reading the other reviews here, it was definitely the book, and not me.

The prose in this book is definitely poetic. There are a lot of memorable lines, but it felt like Coates spent too much time waxing on about the psychological effects of slavery (definitely an important topic of course) and not enough time on the characters or the story itself.

First, I didn't like that he started out the book with the Goose scene. I was so confused the entire time, and I think the chapter would have been much better in chronological order. By the time I understood what had actually happened during that scene, I had read it so long ago (also a side effect of taking so long to read this) that I had forgotten the details of what had happened and had to read it again. There is a specific line in that first chapter saying "slavery murdered him [Maynard]" and that line would have made a lot more sense and had a lot more emotional impact if it was later in the book. I thought Maynard was also a slave when I read that chapter.

Like I mentioned earlier, this book spent a lot of time examining the psychological effects of slavery, both on and because of the white people (both those who owned slaves and those who didn't), and the slaves themselves. In that way, this book was different than other ones I've read about slavery. It was really interesting to see how "low whites" reacted to the slaveowners. It was depressing to see the effects of families being separated
Spoilerespecially Thena's reaction towards the end when Hiram offers to reunite her with Kessiah
. There were a lot of great lines on this topic, but these poetic and passionate passages definitely slowed the book down.

It was strange to me how Hiram kept mentioning that he loved Sophia mostly because he loved the idea of her instead of her as a person. He said exactly this multiple times, saying that he didn't consider her thoughts and dream. The narration made it sound like he used to do that, but now, in the present, he doesn't, but I don't think he ever really did see her as a full person. Their relationship felt very forced. I did like her as a character though, and she had some great lines about the particular experience of being a female slave: "Ain't no freedom for a woman in trading a white man for a colored."

SpoilerI also never really understood why Corrine had Hiram sold to that slavemaster who hunted the slaves for fun (and had him in a dark pit otherwise). Was that just so he could see how horrible slavery truly is, since he had it pretty good at Lockless as the son of the master? Otherwise, I did like Corrine as a character.

The really interesting part was once Hiram joined the Underground. I especially loved when he lived in Philadelphia (it helps that I lived there and recognize the places he mentioned). I liked all of the characters he met there, especially the brothers Otha and Raymond. I did like Harriet, though it took me a long time to realize that she was Harriet Tubman.


I can't even remember a lot of the details of the story anymore, lol. I remember being a bit disappointed by the anticlimactic ending. I'll probably remember this book mostly as a poetic exploration of slavery (and being constantly confused by other characters calling Hiram "Hi" lol).

Memorable lines:
We feared them and hated them, perhaps more than we feared and hated the Quality who held us, for all of us were low, we were all Tasked, and we should be in union and arrayed against the Quality, if only the low whites would wager their crumbs for a slice of the whole cake.

I found this quote comparing white abolitionists to free black abolitionists particularly interesting (emphasis mine).
All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave. Corrine was no different, and it was why, relentless as she was against slavery, she could so casually condemn me to the hole, condemn Georgie Parks to death, and mock an outrage put upon Sophia.

torrie1988's review against another edition

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5.0

This is a beautiful story about our human nature to have freedom. No human was born to be a slave to anyone. We need freedom and rights. This books paints that beautifully.
As you can expect, it is heartbreaking. When Hiram learned he would be a servant to Maynard I was heartbroken with him! And when Hiram runs into Mary, my goodness her explanations are devastating and powerful.
The writing was fantastic and the story beautifully told. It is just an amazing book.

messagevaleriek's review against another edition

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3.0

(Actually a 3.5) I do love magical realism, and some passages are beautifully written. The story felt powerful when zooming out to big-picture ideas (the system of slavery, the importance of a sense of place/family, etc.), but lost a bit when it came to the nitty-gritty of dialogue and character building. While I found it to be an interesting read, Coates’ fiction lacks the clarity and conviction of his nonfiction writing.

jbru's review against another edition

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adventurous challenging mysterious medium-paced

4.0

bahamareader242's review against another edition

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4.0

I did not think I would enjoy or resonate with this book. I had read Between The World And Me and I didn' connect to that so I figured it would be the same with this. I chose to read this book because of the Oprah book club otherwise I would not have picked it up. I thought well there must be something here. I chose to step out of what I know, what I was comfortable with and give the writer another try. And guess what, I liked it. I'm not in love with the writing, but I appreciate the story and the work and passion that went into this body of work. I appreciate the writer's mind and his purpose in creating this work. I believed the world that was created. I was in it. I understood Hiram but I didn't connect with him. I could feel the characters each one but didn't connect with them on that level where you know they'll be with you forever. I feel this is a fantastic piece of work and it should be read. I'm glad that I chose to spend time in Mr. Coates' world.

leahta11's review against another edition

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3.0

I very much wanted to like this book. While harsh, this is important subject matter. The underlying story was fine, but the writing itself took me out of it quick. The magical realism mixed with the nonfiction-esque factual storytelling did not do it for me.

morgan_amer's review against another edition

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adventurous challenging dark emotional hopeful sad slow-paced

4.0

purplehulk713's review against another edition

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4.0

It was lovely—Hiram’s character arc of forgetting to remembering, from selfishness to consideration, and from solitude to family is remarkable. I did find it to be a little slow at times perhaps because Coates draws out scenes to reflect on their implications but this could be quite interesting at times. I loved Thena and her relationship with Hi. The ancient magic of Conduction was especially fascinating to me, with its harkening back to all that was which drives us forward and the description of Harriet Tubman as possessing this power tenfold that she would become the Moses of the Underground Railroad. And the biblical comparisons of Hiram’s life to that of Moses cleverly deepened the narrative to make it as ageless as the bond of family itself.

sprainedbrain's review against another edition

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5.0

Having read Coates' nonfiction, I knew him to be a powerful writer. Nonetheless, I was completely blown away by the strength of emotions that reading his first novel evoked. This is truly excellent, well-researched historical fiction with added magical realism that takes the novel in a very pleasant direction. Wonderful writing, strong characters, and a memorable storyline. One of the best books I read in 2019.