Continuing in my series of book reviews for writers, I completed reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘The Water Dancer’.
The opening of the book immediately reminded me of the Elmore Leonard quote ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’ This flowery prose that calls attention to itself like a toddler, “Mummy, Mummy, look at me.” It doesn’t last but flares up again and again. Not an auspicious start.
I didn’t like the book and will include spoilers, so you are for-warned.
I had trouble engaging with this book. For good reason Writers are admonished to ‘Show, don’t tell’. This is a story told. It is so strange to have a book written in first person point of view, and to not connect with that principal character. We don’t learn his simplest thoughts and ideas, what are his lovable quirks. We don’t laugh with him, and we don’t love or fear with him. There is a point late in the novel where he again meets up with Sophia, who has a child. She tells him, ‘She’s not yours.’ Well of course I thought, Hiram and Sophia never had a romantic or sexual relationship. But I guess they did, and it was so unremarkable that this reader missed it. It was never described in any memorable way, which is the major flaw here. The emotional distance the reader feels. This author is so mistaken to neglect a scene of love. Sad. A huge missed opportunity.
I don’t feel an emotional connection, any connection, to Hiram, the principal character. He says he is in love with Sophia, but I don’t feel it. He is more defined by relationships he can’t remember with his mother. Weird.
It is an important subject, slavery, but this story feels disconnected. I am not clear when it is taking place. Before the civil war but I don’t know exactly when.
When people write books about a subject we all ‘should’ care about, it is harder to criticize the work. But the book is failing me as a good novel. I am disbelieving, and not just the magical realism, which I enjoy. This power of ‘Conduction’ almost makes the Underground railroad obsolete.
The great power of a well written novel is that a reader can experience the world of the characters without the downside risk such as being caught and returned to slavery. I heard Sophia moan ‘No, no, no’ when they were caught, and felt for her. Hiram, not so much. I don’t know if he is meant to be stoic or aloof, but the book doesn’t work because we don’t feel any of the horror he goes through. We watch it, like watching TV, with no emotional connection.
Again, we are not supposed to criticize the politically correct voices here. This is a novel that feels like an essay, too much head and not enough heart.
Then the lack of connection lead to the fatal flaw in any novel. I had to push myself to finish it. Reading, which should be a joy even when difficult, had become a chore.
Good writing is honest. But honesty should never be used to hide sadism. I want these ‘Reviews for Writers’ to look at writing honestly. We can learn how to be great writers by reading great fiction, but also by analyzing where attempts at great writing miss the mark. And here I think Coates misses the mark by not being emotionally honest. I think he is an intellectual of sorts and fears sharing that part of himself with the reader. He holds back and the result is a character, Hiram, who never connects. Good honest writing should go up to the point of almost embarrassing the writer. Coates gets nowhere near that line.
Why do we read great fiction? As compared to watching a movie. A good novel let’s the reader immerse into the author’s world, to feel and experience with the characters. Whether it is to feel the horror of slavery or the ecstasy of love, to endure the hardships of separation from family or share the joy of a common goal attained.
Reader want to experience everything without the real negative risks of beatings, torture or death.
A swing and a miss here.