In an essay on race and memory, Toni Morrison wrote of "the stress of remembering, its inevitability, [but] the chances for liberation that lie within the process." Ta-Nehisi Coates' new novel, The Water Dancer, is an experiment in taking Morrison's "chances for liberation" literally: What if memory had the power to transport enslaved people to freedom?
Coates is best known as a writer of nonfiction, including Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power, but with a new novel and his work on the Black Panther comic series, he is straying into speculative fiction. The results are mixed. At its best, The Water Dancer is a melancholic and suspenseful novel that merges the slavery narrative with the genres of fantasy or quest novels. But moments of great lyricism are matched with clichés and odd narrative gaps, and the mechanics of plot sometimes seem to grind and stall.