The novel opens with a very interesting first chapter. A beginning that seems to start with an ending. It appears as if Hi, and his brother are going to drown in the river. But this is not the only interesting fact contained in the first chapter. Hi’s brother is also his master, Hi can see his dead mother on the bridge and a strange blue light. When he and his brother enter the light, unable to stop in time on their chaise, they find themselves drowning in the river below. A magical teleportation of sorts. Hi also states that the bridge is a connection between the land of the living and the land of the lost. Hi does not worry about drowning, he is a slave, he welcomes the strange blue light that has followed from the bridge and is quickly approaching. Enveloped in the light, memories of his life swirl through his head like a dervish.
In the second chapter, Hi, by his own admission tells us he was a strange child. Talking before he could walk, and never forgetting anything that hew saw or was said to him. It appears that Hi has a photographic memory.
He remembers when he was nine years old, the blue door. It was the day his mother was taken from him. We find that he has visions. When his mother is taken, he has visions of a trough of water and knows he must get to the horse stables. Upon looking into the trough, the blue light returns and Hi experiences more visions, but again they are not very helpful in where his mother has been taken. A perplexing gift.
In his novel “The Underground Railroad”, Colson Whitehead turned the Underground Railroad into a literal reality. Coates goes one step further and uses magical realism in which runaway slaves are teleported from slavery to freedom through a process called “Conduction”.
Hiram discovers that he has the power of conduction. Memory and stories are used to initiate and power the conduction. The farther the distance travelled, the deeper the memories and stories needed. Water is also essential for conduction.
As you would expect from a novel that has enslavement at its core, the reader is witness to the emotional and physical horrors of the enslaved, or “Tasked” as they are called in Coates’ world.
The emotional pain and torment take front seat with families being torn apart. Parents ripped from the grasping hands of their children, sold on, never to be seen again. These generational tears become even more prevalent as the land becomes more barren, and the Tasked are sold off to compensate for growing financial losses.
As history has shown us countless times, a small number of an elite class, in this novel “The Quality” while ruling and subverting the Tasked, are completely reliant on them for almost everything. Their whole world would implode with the loss of the very class they rule over.
The narrative is told in the first person from Hiram’s perspective. He joins “The Underground”, an organisation that is surreptitiously waging war against the Quality from within, under their very noses.
Hiram finds himself in the position of saving the ones he loves, a promise he feels must be kept, or follow the orders from the Underground and not jeopardize their long-term plans and risk the lives of the many.
Slavery, though immoral and vile, nearly always makes a great page turning novel. There is something about a slave fighting for their rights to freedom, sometimes against impossible odds and adversity.
Sophia, a female slave says it beautifully,
“What I want is the same thing I have always wanted, what I have always told you I wanted. I want my hands, my legs, my arms, my smile, all my precious parts to be mine and mine alone.”
While I enjoyed this novel very much and think that it is an impressive debut, I felt that Coates loses his grip on the narrative in parts in the middle and perhaps made it a touch too long, but these quibbles are more than made up for with a stellar ending. 4 Stars!
Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me, a finalist for the National Book Award. A MacArthur "Genius Grant" fellow, Coates has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story "The Case for Reparations." He lives in New York with his wife and son.
There is a great article on Coates at Oprahmag here - https://www.oprahmag.com/entertainment/books/a28984934/ta-nehisi-coates-interview-the-water-dancer-oprah-book-club/