Can Oprah Winfrey Have Made a Mistake?




By the end of the American Civil War in 1865 the Confederate South had lost 20 per cent of its male population to the Union armies. Downfall brought its own kind of posthumous victory, however, as Confederates sought to re-cast themselves as Christ-like victims exalted by a myth of the noble lost cause. The African-American author and blogger Ta-Nehisi (pronounced Tah-Nuh-Hah-See) Coates maintains that the scourge of racial opprobrium was never properly exorcised down in the Confederate South or indeed anywhere else in the United States. The plantation lash shows in the powerlessness and poverty of black lives today, he reckons.

Coates, 45, is not so well known here, but in the US he is revered as a prophet-like commentator on race and black culture. His 2015 epistolary quasi-memoir, Between the World and Me, sold over 2 million copies and invited comparisons with the Civil Rights activist-novelist James Baldwin. Coates’s debut novel, The Water Dancer, set partly on a tobacco plantation in 19th century Virginia, again considers America’s confrontation with its slave-owing past. It arrives in the UK having picked up a dutifully appreciative review in the New York Times and a rave from Oprah Winfrey (“One of the best books I have ever read in my entire life”.)


British readers, however, are likely to be puzzled by the applause. On a purely aesthetic level, the novel is a slog  – it has little forward momentum or plausible dialogue, and the period prose groans under twee conceits and comatose adjectives. (“The yellow spray of sun would soon be peeking over the trees”.)



Hiram Walker, the mixed-race son of a plantation owner, finds he has a photographic memory, and is routinely summoned to perform parlour tricks for the entertainment of sumptuously-dressed plantation overseers (known collectively here as “the Quality”). More impressively, he was born with the power of “conduction”, a supernatural capacity to vanish from one place and appear in another in a blink of time. Through this superhero-like gift he is able to teleport to freedom large numbers of his enslaved brethren (in the novel, “the Tasked”) as well as commune telepathically with his beloved dead mother.

Evading plantation militias and other Southern discomforts, Hiram flees north. In the Yankee heartlands of Philadelphia he hooks up with a redeemer-like young woman they call Moses. Based on the real-life abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Moses uses her own conductive gifts for the benefit of the enslaved and introduces Hiram to the “Underground Railroad” – the abolitionist network of trails and safe houses used by runaway slaves. In antebellum Virginia meanwhile Hiram leaves behind the two “Tasked” people he loves the most: his surrogate mother Thena and his childhood sweetheart Sophia. (Try as he might, he cannot conduct them up north.) And that is more or less the plot.

For all Coates’s diligent archival research into contemporary slave records, one never feels that he has got particularly close to the horrors of slavery in pre-Civil War America. Narrated by an increasingly pretentious-sounding Hiram (“And now, peering into the pigeonhole of my mind”), the novel attempts to blend a Toni Morrison-inspired saga of plantation hardship with the supernatural atmospherics of Stephen King. Coates may be an accomplished essayist, but fiction really is not his forte. Oprah: recommend a better book, please.


This review appeared in the London Evening Standard on 6 February 2020