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Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage--and lost his mother and all memory of her when he was a child--but he is also gifted with a mysterious power. Hiram almost drowns when he crashes a carriage into a river, but is saved from the depths by a force he doesn't understand, a blue light that lifts him up and lands him a mile away. This strange brush with death forces a new urgency on Hiram's private rebellion. Spurred on by his improvised plantation family, Thena, his chosen mother, a woman of few words and many secrets, and Sophia, a young woman fighting her own war even as she and Hiram fall in love, he becomes determined to escape the only home he's ever known. So begins an unexpected journey into the covert war on slavery 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, all Hiram wants is to return to the Walker Plantation to free the family he left behind--but to do so, he must first master his magical gift and reconstruct the story of his greatest loss.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of The Beautiful Struggle, We Were Eight Years in Power, and Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award in 2015. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Coates lives in New York City with his wife and son.
"Coates balances the horrors of slavery against the fantastical. He extends the idea of the gifts of the disenfranchised to include a kind of superpower. But The Water Dancer is very much its own book, and its gestures toward otherworldliness remain grounded. In the end, it is a novel interested in the psychological effects of slavery, a grief that Coates is especially adept at parsing. . . . In Coates's world, an embrace can be a revelation, rare and astonishing." --Esi Edugyan, The New York Times Book Review
"The most surprising thing about The Water Dancer may be its unambiguous narrative ambition. This isn't a typical first novel. . . . The Water Dancer is a jeroboam of a book, a crowd-pleasing exercise in breakneck and often occult storytelling that tonally resembles the work of Stephen King as much as it does the work of Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead and the touchstone African-American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler. . . . It is flecked with forms of wonder-working that push at the boundaries of what we still seem to be calling magical realism." --Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"While neither polemical nor wholly fantastical, the story draws on skills [Coates] developed in those other genres. . . . The story's bracing realism is periodically overcome by the mist of fantasy. The result is a budding superhero discovering the dimensions of his power within the confines of a historical novel that critiques the function of racial oppression. . . . Coates isn't dropping supernatural garnish onto The Water Dancer any more than Toni Morrison sends a ghost whooshing through Beloved for cheap thrills. Instead, Coates's fantastical elements are deeply integral to his novel, a way of representing something larger and more profound than the confines of realism could contain." --The Washington Post
"Mythic language pervades the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. . . . With The Water Dancer . . . we pay witness to a writer unchained . . . a writer finally able to marry novelistic tendencies to the form. . . . The fistfuls of firmament Coates is able to bring back to us are a wonder to behold. . . . The horrors depicted never felt rote or part of any genre rulebook. In highlighting families, Coates made his characters individuals. . . . Elements of the adventure novel, of the heist novel, of the romance are all there. But Coates expertly subverts the expectations each of those labels carries. . . . The book does not lack for scene-stealers. . . . Who is he talking to when he demands remembering? He's talking to us. All of us." --Tochi Onyebuchi, Tordotcom
"Studied and meticulous, the novel is a slave narrative that depicts the quotidian horrors of family separation. Even so, it's remarkably tender: The Water Dancer is also a romance." --The Atlantic
"An experience in taking [Toni] Morrison's 'chances for liberation' literally: What if memory had the power to transport enslaved people to freedom?' . . . The most moving part of The Water Dancer [is] the possibility it offers of an alternate history. . . . The book's most poignant and painful gift is the temporary fantasy that all the people who leaped off slave ships and into the Atlantic were not drowning themselves in terror and anguish, but going home." --NPR