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The Water Dancer (Oprah’s Book Club)

A Novel
Narrated by: Joe Morton
Length: 14 hrs and 14 mins
Categories: Fiction, African-American
4.5 out of 5 stars (4,131 ratings)

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Interview: Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Water Dancer Makes A Big Splash

I wanted interesting, complex, thick relationships in the book.

  • The Water Dancer (Oprah’s Book Club)
  • I wanted interesting, complex, thick relationships in the book.

Publisher's Summary

Number-one New York Times best seller

Oprah’s Book Club Pick

From the National Book Award-winning author of Between the World and Me, a boldly conjured debut novel about a magical gift, a devastating loss, and an underground war for freedom.

“This potent book about America’s most disgraceful sin establishes [Ta-Nehisi Coates] as a first-rate novelist.” (San Francisco Chronicle) 

Named One of Paste’s Best Novels of the Decade • Named One of the Best Books of the Year by Time The Washington Post • Esquire • Good Housekeeping • The New York Public Library • The Dallas Morning News • Kirkus Reviews • Library Journal

“Nearly every paragraph is laced through with dense, gorgeously evocative descriptions of a vanished world and steeped in its own vivid vocabulary.” (Entertainment Weekly)

Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her - but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.

So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.

This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children - the violent and capricious separation of families - and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.

Praise for The Water Dancer

"Ta-Nehisi Coates is the most important essayist in a generation and a writer who changed the national political conversation about race with his 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me. So naturally his debut novel comes with slightly unrealistic expectations - and then proceeds to exceed them. The Water Dancer...is a work of both staggering imagination and rich historical significance.... What’s most powerful is the way Coates enlists his notions of the fantastic, as well as his fluid prose, to probe a wound that never seems to heal.... Timeless and instantly canon-worthy." (Rolling Stone)

©2019 Ta-Nehisi Coates (P)2019 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Joe Morton doesn't just give a stellar performance of Coates's audiobook. He embodies its characters completely, making the listening experience cinematic.... Coates's first novel is steeped in magical realism, yet the parallels to America's past are clear, making this a not-to-miss listening experience. Morton's narration is equally powerful - among the year's best." (AudioFile Magazine)

"Coates balances the horrors of slavery against the fantastical. He extends the idea of the gifts of the disenfranchised to include a kind of superpower. But The Water Dancer is very much its own book, and its gestures toward otherworldliness remain grounded. In the end, it is a novel interested in the psychological effects of slavery, a grief that Coates is especially adept at parsing.... In Coates’s world, an embrace can be a revelation, rare and astonishing." (Esi Edugyan, The New York Times Book Review

"The most surprising thing about The Water Dancer may be its unambiguous narrative ambition. This isn’t a typical first novel.... The Water Dancer is a jeroboam of a book, a crowd-pleasing exercise in breakneck and often occult storytelling that tonally resembles the work of Stephen King as much as it does the work of Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead and the touchstone African-American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler.... It is flecked with forms of wonder-working that push at the boundaries of what we still seem to be calling magical realism." (Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"Coates isn’t dropping supernatural garnish onto The Water Dancer any more than Toni Morrison sends a ghost whooshing through Beloved for cheap thrills. Instead, Coates’s fantastical elements are deeply integral to his novel, a way of representing something larger and more profound than the confines of realism could contain." (The Washington Post

Editor's Pick

Eloquent, thoughtful, and brutally honest
"Since writing Between the World and Me—the 2015 National Book Award winner and quite possibly my favorite audiobook of all time—Ta-Nehisi Coates has become a leading figure on news panels and publications because of his eloquence, thoughtfulness, and brutal honesty on race in America. The Water Dancer is Coates’s first published work of fiction and one of the most anticipated releases this fall—and rightfully so. Set in the antebellum era, this work of historical fiction meets magical realism will stick with you long after you’ve finished listening. And there really couldn’t be a better narrator for this story than Joe Morton. If you needed any further evidence to prove that Ta-Nehisi Coates is one the strongest and most important voices out there right now, then here it is."
Aaron S., Audible Editor

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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We Must Always Remember

This is SO not what I was expecting. I was expecting to be broken by the story of slavery, the brutality and terror of it. Instead, I heard the story of beautiful, complex and fully fleshed out human beings. Exploring life and love and magic and memory and power and blessings and war. So well written and wonderfully narrated.

83 of 87 people found this review helpful

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Poetry in book form

This very powerful book reads like poetry! It's beautifully written and paints the scene and the emotions that are carried in them, perfectly. The storyteller, Hiram, has a life that is complex, emotional, and complicated in a way I imagine the life of someone who is one of "the tasked" (he seldom uses the word slave) must feel. But rather than just leave it as the story of brutal history, the author adds this element of magic, similar to how Toni Morrison did that makes it difficult to know when it's coming, that just adds more depth, fear, and intrigue to the story. I can't imagine anyone other than the amazing Joe Morton narrating this story so well. I love when authors (who aren't actors) are smart enough to get true professionals to deliver their stories and Morton doesn't let you down. I don't think everyone will love this book as much as I did, it takes some dedication to plow through it, but if you're willing to surrender to the story and live through the sometimes complicated parts of it, you'll enjoy the gifts of a truly talented writer.

72 of 80 people found this review helpful

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Too Eloquent for Me

I think of myself as a fairly educated person and I really struggled to comprehend what was being said in this book. The words and phrasing was just "above me" and I didn't really get into the story at all. The narrator was AMAZING and I'll look for more of his work.

Sorry Oprah, I really wanted to love this one!

38 of 42 people found this review helpful

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started well but lost me

I loved the first half of this book but it began to get very fuzzy and lost me.
I finished it hoping for a big finale but if it were there I missed it

22 of 26 people found this review helpful

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Powerful in surprising ways!

Of the 30 books I’ve read so far this year, this is my absolute favorite!!!! The method of storytelling lures you in and quickly gets you committed to seeing the resolution of the story/stories represented. I also love the fact that the entire story shared the impact of a strong part of our cultural history to the history of our country. Aaaand I love the imperfections of each character and how each character grows in their own journey.

“To forgive is irrelevant. To forget is death.”

16 of 19 people found this review helpful

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Forcing myself to listen

I was captured in the first few chapters and then it went downhill from there. I am now forcing myself to listen and having to replay chapters over because I can’t pay attention. I will be returning this book for a different one.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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slow read

This was a slow read for me. I tried to force myself to get through it but couldn't. it's just an okay read. I may try to read the rest later and give it a second try because it's similar to history.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Well crafted, historically important, and relevant.

Similar to the visual, emotional, and colorful kaleidoscope of vibrant effects achieved by Salinger, Steinbeck, and Hemingway, Coates magically transports the reader back to a time and secretive place of pre Emancipation Proclamation colonial shame. As the layers of this profoundly disturbing period in U.S. history are revealed, Coates reverently maintains balance between revealing truths without flooding the reader with devastation and heartbreak by justly displaying the beauty, pristine spirit and the physical, emotional, and intellectual strengths of the American slave, thus creating intrigue, not shun or recoil. While Coates masterfully creates a portrait of historical significance that can seem to some as long ago and removed from contemporary sight, he successfully illustrates how the reverberations of slavery are relevant today, gently revealing that this story is not historical at all. It is now. The Water Dancer will undoubtably join the ranks with all the other works of great American literature.

26 of 33 people found this review helpful

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Impressive

This is my first book by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is a fiction with an interesting premise “What if memory had the power to transport enslaved people to freedom?” The protagonist is Hiram Walker, who can remember everything with photographic recall except his mother.

This is a beautifully written book about slavery. I had a bit of a problem with the magical realism. It took me a awhile to adjust. Otherwise, this is a fantastic book that uses language in an almost magical way. The author has a powerful imagination and is an exceptionally gifted writer.

The book is fourteen hours and fourteen minutes. Joe Morton does a good job narrating the book. Morton is an actor and audiobook narrator.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Not nearly as good as expected.

I was excited to read this book but it started dragging and finishing it became torture. Oprah must have seen something I didn’t. If it too the author ten years to write it, perhaps he should have spent the last 5 editing.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful