Book Review: THE WATER DANCER by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water Dancer is as personal and skillfully written as should be expected from renowned nonfiction writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.


Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.

So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the deep South to dangerously utopic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.

This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen. 

It’s easy to think it was inevitable for The Water Dancer to be exceptional.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is well-known in nonfiction spaces for his bold perspectives and elegant writing style. You’d be forgiven for thinking that his headliner debut novel will of course be outstanding.

But jumping form and genre is difficult. I’ve read too many debut novels of poets and nonfiction writers to not see all the ways it can go wrong. Plenty of poets, short fiction, and nonfiction writers jump into the fiction space without a real reason, leading to a lot of novels that didn’t need to be novels.

The Water Dancer is a novel that needed to be a novel, and that’s worthy of note. (Did it need to be quite so long? Probably not, but whatcha gonna do. Brevity is not a particular strength of Coates’ nonfiction writing either.)

Yes, Coates needed this precise vehicle for this story. It had to be fiction, it had to be longform, it had to be historical, and it had to be realism with a supernatural twist.

The Water Dancer leads with Coates’ inventive, skillful use of language.

With the time and space afforded by the form of the novel, Coates is able

Marketing for this title has emphasized Coates’ rich, musical prose. The prose is certainly noteworthy, though I fear it won’t work for everyone. I personally don’t mind (extremely) long sentences and chapters that digress and circle back multiple times, but if that style irritates you, it’ll be difficult to get through this book.

But when I talk about Coates’ use of language in this book, I’m talking about more than his well-constructed sentences. The terms Coates chooses to describe Hiram, his feelings, the setting, and slavery itself are core to the novel’s mission.

To begin with, it’s a remarkable feat or world building that Coates is able to layer a new vocabulary over existing history seamlessly. Terms like “the quality” (white people/slaveholders) and “the tasked” (enslaved people) are instantly identifiable without explanation.

More importantly, creative use of language lets Coates draw unexpected connections and build to emotional punches. Coates mines terms like “conduction” and “underground” and “water dance” for layers of alternate meanings.

The Water Dancer has grimly realistic portrayals of the horrors of slavery, but it also looks past literal representations. Coates uses creative language–and magical imagery–to bring his vision of the Underground Railroad to live. Likewise, he’s able to dig deeper than visible harms of slavery, turning his attention to the deeply personal dimensions of the corrosion of the human spirit.

Random House has asked that reviews not run until the on-sale date, so there are only a handful of reviews (apart from trade publications) available right now. After the book has been out for a week or two, I’ll link here to some OwnVoices reviews of this title. If you’ve read (or written) a good review from a Black or African reader, please feel free to drop a link in comments!

Thank you to One World and Random House for the advance review copy of this title. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.

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