ARC Book Review: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

406 pages (Hardcover)

ISBN: 9780399590597

Published 9/24/19 by One World Books

Oprah’s Book Club Pick 2019

Genre – Literary Fiction / Magical Realism

★★★★✩

Amazon | B&N | Goodreads

Thank you to One World Books / NetGalley for the early digital copy in exchange for an honest review!

*I am a bit late with this review (clearly), so I was able to pick up the finished copy from the library. All quotes in review are from the finished copy.

Trigger warnings: Sexual, physical, and mental abuse / harassment. Mention of suicide. This is about slavery, so go in with a cautious mind when it comes to trigger warnings. I may not have caught everything.

Goodreads Synopsis

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.

Review

Story | What a remarkable stand on an era in time that is well known and thoroughly researched in the literature world.

“But it was still Virginia of old, where a dubious God held that those who would offer a man for sale were somehow more honorable than those who effected that sale.”

This is a story of a colored Task (slave), Hiram Walker, who flees the only place he has ever known, to experience and understand freedom. Liberation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when it’s a secret. The amount of trustworthy individuals is questionable and new places, unsettling.

Hiram is the offspring of Howell Walker, a plantation proprietor in Elm County, Virginia. Rose, Hiram’s mother, was a colored woman, thus causing Hiram to be a Task rather than Quality. He is to watch over Maynard, Howell’s son from a different woman. Maynard leaves much to be desired. He ends up with a lady named Corinne Quinn, a woman of considerable prosperity (inherited from her deceased parents).

Maynard and Hiram end up in a river where death is imminent. Maynard’s body is never found, presumed dead, but Hiram gets out alive. He is comatose for three days, murmuring words, and running a fever. When he awakens, he realizes that he has to escape and find the underground.

“A man is blooming inside me, George, and I cannot shackle him. He know too much. He seen too much. He has got to get out, this man, or he cannot live. I swear I fear what is coming. I fear my own hands.”

Sophia belongs to Nathaniel, Howell’s brother. Hiram is required to drive her to and from Nathaniel’s property every weekend. She loves to knit and have conversations with Hiram. They try to escape together. They discuss an escape route with Georgie Parks.

“Georgie, praised and esteemed by the whites, and held to have some secret life by the coloreds, would be their man.”

Georgie rats them out to Ryland’s Hounds—men who hunt for the Tasked that ran away—the night they arranged to leave. I never expected Georgie to rat them out, but that’s why I mentioned that all the characters in this novel are questionable until proven otherwise.

The journey continues on and only becomes more intense as the story rolls on. I don’t want to give away anything else because it will ruin the book for you. I encourage you to go pick it up!

There is a touch of magical realism mixed in with the story. Hiram has a power that will save him in certain situations. This was one aspect of the story line that I didn’t much care for. I knew about the magical realism before going into the novel, but I didn’t 100% know what to expect. If I’m being honest, the power that Hiram had didn’t make much sense to me. I don’t read this genre a lot. What I do know: It was called “conduction” and it only worked when water was involved. Hence why he was saved when him and his brother, Maynard, were in the river. Hiram doesn’t really understand it either, so maybe the reader isn’t really supposed to. I don’t know. Often it involves his mother, whom he has no recollection of. Howell sold her when Hiram was a child. If you have read this and are more of a critical reader than I am, educate me on the point of his power!

Other than a few chapters toward the end that made me want to fall asleep, the story was fascinating. There is an abundance of brutality involved, which was to be expected, but there is likewise a lot of love and friendship. There are enemies, but there are also hidden gems throughout the story.

Characters | There are a slew of people involved in the story, and everyone has a purpose. I never mixed them up, which surprised me. I have a hard time getting a lot of characters straight. You can tell that Coates considered each person carefully.

Hiram is my favorite out of all of them. He had flaws, but his strengths outweighed those by a long shot. He was strong-willed, tough, kind, and honorable. He did struggle at being a good judge of character, but as a reader, I did too. That’s how you know the characters are three-dimensional.

Hiram sacrificed a lot to save the people he loved. He understood what family meant. He cared about what his mother was like even though he didn’t remember her. She was just a puff of smoke in his memory. He was proud to be the son of a well-known and beautiful water dancer. He’s a very admirable man, and if you read this, I’m hopeful you would fall in love with him too.

Thena is next on my list. She went through a lot just to make sure she stayed alive and at the Lockless house. Her five babies were sold, and her husband died. She cursed him for dying because he would have stood up for those babies. She may not have had a ton of courage, but her good intentions were there; a very admirable woman.

Writing | Such magnificent prose. I can’t express to you how wonderful the writing is in this novel. It flows like water (pun intended). It’s smart, well crafted, and articulate. One of the better written books I have ever read. It’s the second on my list for writing style.

Overall |I 100% recommend this novel to anyone who is interested. It contains a few dry spots, and I understand magical realism may not be for everyone. Those two flaws don’t take away from the good in the story. It will shatter your heart into a million pieces and then mend it back together. I would read more from Ta-Nehisi Coates in a heartbeat.

Extra Quotes: 

“The gazelle does not match claws with the lion—he runs.”

“I was what I was and could no more choose my family, even a family denied me, than I could choose a country that denies us all the same.”

 

“Power makes slaves of masters.”

 

“For it is not simply by slavery that you are captured, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes.” 


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Book Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

193 pages

Published January 12, 2016 by Random House

ISBN: 9781400067695

Genre: Contemporary/Literary Fiction

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Amazon | B&N | Goodreads

SYNOPSIS: 

Lucy Barton is in the hospital for what was supposed to be a very simple procedure. Complications arise, and she is stuck in the hospital longer than anticipated. One day she wakes up and her mother is in her hospital room. Lucy and her mother do not have the strongest bond, but to Lucy the need for that bond is strong. They discuss their past and the people that were involved over the next few days. Lucy is a mother to two beautiful daughters and a wife to a man named William. Her marriage is very mediocre and she is aspiring to be a writer. The discussions with her mother help her to release all of the tension in every aspect of her life. She can finally come to terms with all of it.

REVIEW:

Characters | Lucy is a fantastic, humble, unsure main character. She understands that she isn’t perfect and neither is her life. She doesn’t have a close bond with her parents, especially her mother, and her marriage isn’t doing so hot. She’s not happy, but she doesn’t quite know what to do about it. She recalls all of her memories, and she thinks about all of the people she has come in contact with along the way. She delves into what made them who they were. She shares what she thinks, but she also explains to the reader that she may not have recalled it correctly. She knows she can’t speak for everyone else, and Strout really gives the reader that sense of instability.

Lucy’s mother was a tough character to connect with. It is from Lucy’s point of view, so I’m sure that’s the reason why. Sometimes you felt like she was an amazing woman, and other times you wanted to just kick her out of the story. You want to tell Lucy that it’ll be okay. You’ll figure it out. There is a lot more to life than what you have experienced.

Story | Lucy and her family were very poor. Kids would tease her, and material items, or the lack thereof, were always brought up. The clothes she wore were never good enough. They ate molasses on bread almost every night. Her father worked on farm equipment. She has a brother and sister who are very odd. There was so much interesting backstory to the characters, and it added this new height to the story overall. It lifted it up from being just a mother and daughter bonding in a hospital. One part of this novel almost made me cry. Not having a close bond with my mother is probably my worst nightmare. I can only sympathize with Lucy. It’s heartbreaking!

Critique: The ending was underwhelming. I wanted something more, and I cannot pinpoint what that is. I would give this a 4.5 rating, but I have given up the half star ratings. It’s just easier for everyone.

Writing | Strout’s writing is simple, smart, and honest. I can understand why she is a Pulitzer Prize-Winning author. I could probably read everything she has written, and everything she will write from here on out. Here are some quotes that I really enjoyed:

“This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.”

“One can be ready to give up the children one always wanted, one can be ready to withstand remarks about one’s past, or one’s clothes, but then-a tiny remark and the soul deflates and says: Oh.”

“I have learned this: A person gets tired. The mind or the soul or whatever word we have for whatever is not just the body gets tired, and this, I have decided, is-usually, mostly-nature helping us. I was getting tired.”

“This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.” 

I do really recommend this book. Strout’s writing is commendable. Her thoughts and her words hit you a certain way that is indescribable. Please just give it a go!


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