The Water Dancer
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the greatest writers in our generation, and The Water Dancer is top-shelf, Grade A literary fiction.

It is gut-wrenching at times, focusing on the way humans respond to an institutionalized order that so drastically and cruelly separates them from the way things should naturally be. It takes place in Virginia circa late-1840s to early 1850s (based on my estimates).

The main character is Hiram, a true genius, who is the child of the slave owner and one of his slaves and condemned to a life that purposefully ignores his brilliance.

In a world of opportunities and free choices, a man like Hiram should have no boundaries. But, he is the brains for his white half-brother Maynard, who, despite being a complete buffoon, stands to inherit everything.

Through the story, the author invites us to people watch those around Hiram, like the perfectly coiffed and elegant members of the southern gentry who turn cruel and feral as the night goes on, compared to the bravery of a low-born white man who becomes a fearless agent of the Underground. The black freedmen who risk everything to save people left behind versus the ones who work with slave catchers for a profit.

There are excellent, soundbite-able quotes that really deserve to be highlighted and discussed, and this would be an excellent book discussion/club selection.

An element of magical realism runs through the book, a latent and untapped well of power within Hiram that he must seek to control and wield. The fantasy element does not detract from the gravity of the historical fiction, if anything, the gritty realism of the work makes the fantasy element seem like it could only be true.

Highly recommended.

arc received from the publisher