Review

A superhero story about slavery

The Water Dancer (above) is American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates' (top) debut novel.
The Water Dancer is American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates' (above) debut novel.PHOTO: NINA SUBIN

FICTION

THE WATER DANCER

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

One World/Paperback/406 pages/ $29.96/Books Kinokuniya

4 stars

There has been a lot of debate of late over whether Marvel movies count as cinema.

Now, American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has produced a novel that combines the slave narrative with the superhero genre - and the result is unquestionably spectacular literature.

The Water Dancer is Coates' debut novel, though he is already hugely acclaimed for his book-length letter, Between The World And Me, which won the 2015 National Book Award for Non-fiction and has made waves for his work on Marvel comic Black Panther.

The hero of his novel is Hiram Walker, a young man enslaved on Lockless, a fading Virginia plantation with a cruelly ironic name.

His father is the plantation's master; his mother, a slave, has gone "Natchez-way", sold off when he was nine.

Hiram's world is filled with such terms, which lend it an air of the mythic and set it ever so slightly aslant from this one. The elite who rule it are the Quality; the white working-class are the Low; the slaves are the Tasked.

Hiram is a polymath with a photographic memory. He remembers everything in exact detail - except for his mother, whose loss he has buried beyond recall. Despite his gifts, the highest station he can aspire to is as manservant to his buffoon of a half-brother, Maynard, the heir to Lockless.

The Water Dancer (above) is American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates' (top) debut novel.

Driving Maynard home across a river one night, Hiram has a vision of his lost mother dancing on the bridge. What follows is an accident that causes Maynard to drown and gives Hiram the first inklings that he has a superpower.

This power, Conduction, is akin to teleportation, but draws on memory - the stronger a bond to a place or between people, the more powerful the Conduction.

It is a power of great interest to the Underground Railroad, the secret network that helps slaves escape towards freedom in the North.

The greatest living Conductor is none other than Harriet Tubman, or "Moses", who in real life was a legendary abolitionist who guided about 70 people out of slavery.

Coates' writing hurtles forward, heart-in-mouth, but is at the same time grounded in historical tragedy.

Where most slave narratives focus on the physical horrors of slavery, he is more interested in the psychological ways it dismantles a person and divides families when humans become property.

In one heartbreaking scene, a former slave remembers how, when he was six, his mother chose to run away with his younger siblings, but leave him and his older brother behind. Asked why they could not go with her, she told him: "Cause I can only carry so many, and them, only so far."

Similarly, the activities of the Underground make for gripping adventure and moral quandary - how does one even begin to choose whom to save, when there are so very many? What are the criteria for a human being to deserve freedom?

 
 

In the face of the overwhelming fractures of history, The Water Dancer strives to repair a broken people through empowerment - literally, in Hiram's case.

It is immense work. Yet, it strains towards hope.

If you like this, read: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet, 2017, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya), the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that imagines the secret network of the title as a literal subterranean railroad which Cora, a young slave, uses to escape.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2019, with the headline 'A superhero story about slavery'. Print Edition | Subscribe