The Water Dancer is a beautiful book that seems to defy categorisation.
On one hand, it is a dramatic action story about a slave’s fight for freedom.
On the other, it is a sci-fi tale where people with magical powers physically transport themselves using the power of memory.
It is also a personal memoir of one man, Hiram Walker, and how he came to see the world in a radically different way.
Hiram was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation after the plantation master, Howell, raped his mother, Rose.
The book shows the horrible, contradictory pressures that plantation life creates. Hiram develops a deep desire to run, but is also attached to the only “home” and “family” he has ever known.
“There is always a part of us that does not want to win, wants to stay down in the low and familiar,” he says. For a long time Hiram longs for the approval of his father, even though he sold off his mother.
Powerful descriptions of slavery combine with a pacy plot, and every character feels distinct and well-drawn.
Many prominent characters are women.
These include Thena who takes in Hiram as a child, Sophia who he loves and Corrine, a white woman helping organise the “underground” slave rebellion.
Hiram’s otherwise photographic memory has forgotten his mother, yet she hangs over the whole book.
Women get plenty of space to challenge others’ visions of what freedom for them would mean.
Sophia is enslaved by Howell’s brother Nathaniel, who regularly rapes her.
When Hiram talks to Sophia about escaping, she challenges his assumption that they should then be together.
“That ain’t freedom to me, do you understand?” she says. “Ain’t no freedom for a woman in trading in a white man for a colored.”
The book shows how actions by ordinary people can bring about momentous changes in the world.
“This secret war was waged against something more than the Taskmasters of Virginia,” says Hiram. “We sought not merely to improve the world, but to remake it.”
The only doubt I had was whether, in showing Hiram overcoming his flaws, his character was at times too good to be true. But this is a tiny point. The book is brilliant.