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Review: The Water Dancer

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

5/5 stars

Part historical fiction, part magical realism, Coates' debut novel is a vivid and poetic slave narrative that re-imagines the Underground Railroad in a unique way that I really enjoyed... despite the fact that last year I read Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad and Ben Winters' Underground Airlines, both of which "re-imagine the Underground Railroad in a unique way." While I enjoyed both of those books, this one felt a little more thoughtful, somehow. The special attention to the language of slavery, in which Coates re-purposes uncommon words to stand in for commonly known terms and phrases, was particularly interesting to me. For instance, slaves are The Tasked, while slave owners are The Quality. I don't know his exact reasoning behind all the substitutions, but the effect is to slightly jar the reader out of whatever tropes already exist in their heads about what "slave" means, what "master" means, etc. I liked being pushed to think about things in a different way - not just because there is a fantastical element where things really do happen in a different way, but also because the language itself made me have to reconsider the images in my head. I also appreciate a book that can skirt the lines between villain and hero, more accurately portraying the fact that no one person is all good or all bad. Sometimes heroes are cynical, conniving, or cruel. Sometimes villains are good-hearted, under certain circumstances.

And finally, as a Rochesterian who recently visited the Harriet Tubman museum and home in Auburn, NY, I also enjoyed the inclusion and characterization of "Moses" herself!

In short, The Water Dancer was great. Highly recommend! I haven't yet read any of Coates' non-fiction, but plan to do so now that I've eased myself into his writing by starting with his fiction.

(Photo above: Reading The Water Dancer at Cafe Sasso, with a "Peace Train" latte - Espresso, Dark Chocolate, Blackberry, Hazelnut & Steamed Milk - and some banana bread.)


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