Ta-Nehisi Coates’s eagerly awaited and ambitious debut novel is set in pre-civil war Virginia, on a slave plantation called Lockless in Starfall, Elm County. The stars of Lockless and other neighbouring plantations are indeed beginning to fade and fall: the slave owners, through a mixture of ineptitude and greed, have worked their lands to exhaustion and are now reduced to selling off their slaves to maintain their lives of idle luxury. Virginia is a hierarchy; at the top are the Quality, white slave owners with the power of life and death over their chief possession, their slaves. Next are the Low – poor whites, mostly uneducated, employed by the Quality to supervise the plantations and keep the enslaved in check. After them are the Freed, former slaves who were able to buy their own freedom. At the very bottom are the Tasked, the enslaved.
The main character and narrator, Hiram, is no ordinary slave. He is gifted with, among other things, a photographic memory; he is also son to Mr Howell Walker, the plantation owner. Howell acknowledges Hiram as his son; he takes him out of the fields and makes him a house slave, sometimes letting him entertain dinner guests with memory tricks, and even assigning to him the same teacher as his other son – and heir – the foolish, bumbling Maynard. This open recognition by his father encourages Hiram to believe in a special destiny for himself, and “in my quiet moments, to imagine myself in their ranks” – this despite constant warnings from Thena, an older slave and Hiram’s adoptive mother, that to the Quality he will always remain a slave.
Sure enough, as soon as Hiram comes of age, Howell cuts his private lessons and assigns him to be a manservant to his own half-brother, Maynard. But, just as Howell overturned Hiram’s dreams, fate also overturns Howell’s dream when Maynard and Hiram are involved in a freak accident, their carriage tumbling into the turbulent river Goose. A mysterious power transports Hiram out of the water and deposits him elsewhere on his father’s plantation. He has been Conducted.
The revelation of Hiram’s gift of Conduction is one of the most important outcomes of the accident. Conduction, we discover, is the ability to magically transport oneself, and others if necessary, from one place to another. It will take Hiram a while to master and control it, but because of his potential, he is recruited by the local Underground Railroad cell, run by the outwardly prim and proper southern belle Corinne, Maynard’s fiancee, who is herself a rich plantation owner. The Underground Railroad refers to a series of safe houses and routes running from the slave-owning south to the free north, used by slaves trying to escape their bondage. In his 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly pushes the metaphor of the railroad into the literal sphere by making the escaping slaves catch real trains in real underground stations as they make their way north.
In The Water Dancer, Coates uses a similar trope: he takes the secret wish of every enslaved person – the ability to magically escape bondage by teleportation – and makes it a reality. The myth of slaves escaping from plantations by swimming or flying back to Africa is a popular one in African American folklore; it populates songs and folktales, from where it makes its way into the writings of authors such as Toni Morrison. In The Water Dancer Coates hands Hiram, and a few others, this power. Coates also honours the achievement of the slaves by pointing out how indispensable they are to the masters, and to the whole American economy: “The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them – we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition for their lives.” In comparison the “gentleman” plantation owner is shown as weak, greedy, ineffectual, keeping control of the enslaved not by any inherent superiority but by terror and systemic white privilege.
Most of the novel follows Hiram in his efforts to master his powers of Conduction. To Conduct successfully, he has to tap into his past and unlock his childhood memories, because Conduction is powered by such recollections. For the enslaved, memory, both individual and collective, kept alive in stories and songs and dances, is a way of survival by connecting to a past that was free and dignified, going back all the way to Africa. The book, in this sense, is the story of Hiram’s apprenticeship as a Conductor. He has many mentors, both white and black, most of them agents of the Underground, but his most significant mentor, herself gifted with Conduction powers, is the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, presented here as a rather idealised figure – Moses and Jesus all wrapped in one.
The Water Dancer is partially fashioned after the popular slave narratives of the late 19th century, and like most slave narratives it is a coming-of-age story, a movement from “boyhood” to adulthood, from servitude to freedom, mirrored in the movement of the enslaved from the southern plantation to the free territories of the north. When he eventually arrives in Pennsylvania, a free man, Hiram is amazed to see other blacks living freely and in charge of their lives, and this makes him more determined to master his powers of Conduction. He yearns to go back to Lockless and free his beloved Sophia, and his adoptive mother, Thena.
Surprisingly, he also finds himself missing the plantation, and the paradox of home is another central theme in the novel. During his earlier episodes of Conduction, Hiram will find himself transported back to Lockless – because it is home and, logically, home is where he should be safest. And yet, in reality, he is never safe there; he is a slave, a prisoner. Such are the psychological disorientations the institution of slavery exact on the enslaved. Hiram does eventually go back to Lockless, setting up the novel’s climactic ending.
In his wildly successful book of nonfiction, Between the World and Me, and in his opinion pieces for the Atlantic, Coates has proved himself a keen and insightful observer of racial and cultural politics in America, and has been described by many critics as the natural successor to James Baldwin. Some of the themes in his nonfiction writing, especially his criticism of America’s unbridled capitalism, are raised in The Water Dancer. In Pennsylvania Hiram attends a progressive convention, where speakers compare child labour and the subjugation of women to slavery: “Slavery was the root of all struggle … factories enslaved the hands of children … child bearing enslaved the bodies of women … and rum enslaved the souls of men. In that moment I understood … that this secret war was waged against something more than the Taskmaster of Virginia, that we sought not merely to improve the world but to remake it.” Slavery, Coates seems to be pointing out, isn’t just about the past, it is about the present as well; not only about America, but about everywhere such inequalities exist.
Perhaps the most powerful and lasting image in this beautifully executed novel is that of the enslaved – or the Tasked, as Coates prefers to call them – who take their destiny into their own hands. They refuse to suffer in dignified silence, or sing hymns and hope for divine intervention; in fact, Coates’s vision here is a very secular one. Sometimes he seems to be making a subtle dig at faith-based abolitionist organisations; for if the church was helpful in freeing the slaves, it had also been complicit in justifying slavery.
• Helon Habila’s Travellers is published by Hamish Hamilton. The Water Dancer is published by Hamish Hamilton (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.