Book review – “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It’s funny how things happen sometimes; in the last week there has been a political controversy in the UK (yes, I know, another one!) about an adviser recruited to the Prime Minister’s office who got into trouble over eugenicist views he had expressed online. The individual concerned seemed a bit cross that he had been held accountable for things he said in his “past”, which he presumably he thinks should be discounted as youthful ramblings, but given that he is only 27 years old, “the past” is a pretty relative concept. I have a new insight into views about eugenics thanks to having listened last week to an excellent serialisation on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week programme of Dr Adam Rutherford’s new book How to Argue with a Racist. If you haven’t come across this yet, I would definitely recommend it. Adam Rutherford is a broadcaster, scientist and genetics expert and in this book he sets about exploding some of the myths around concepts of genetic inheritance. Listening to this book has actually saved me money, as I am no longer tempted to do one of those DNA testing kits! I am not a scientist but in other aspects of my professional life I am required to understand what constitutes good research and it is clear, even to a lay person, that there is no place for the broad generalisations about race, class and IQ (itself a deeply flawed concept) in social policy.

Henrietta LacksBy the strangest of coincidences, I have also just read two books which also explore issues of race and class. Rebecca Skloot’s non-fiction work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Skloot’s book is a detailed and complex account of one woman, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Virginia who died in 1951 from aggressive cervical cancer. The cancer cells from her body were special and unique because they were the first ever cells that were able to not only survive outside their host, but were able to continue to thrive and reproduce, at a rapid rate. This perhaps accounts for the very aggressive nature of Henrietta’s disease. Scientists used these cells, known universally as HeLa cells, to create trillions and trillions more of them, which have been used ever since, worldwide and have been directly responsible for the development of life-saving drugs and treatments, for example for polio. The key to the story, however, is that Henrietta died without ever having been advised about or consenting to the use of her cells in this way, neither did her family, and none of her surviving relatives have been given any financial compensation. What makes the story all the more shocking, however, is that Henrietta died at a time of segregation, and almost certainly did not receive the same level of care and respect as a white woman would have done. I will write more about this book in a future post because it is a fascinating story.

The Water Dancer imgThe other book I have been reading, The Water Dancer, concerns the story of Hiram, a black slave also in Virginia in the mid-1800s. His mother was also a slave, but his father was a slave-owner, who allowed his son some elementary education after his mother’s death and then, when he was in his teens, gave him the special status of being the personal servant to his white half-brother, Maynard, the heir to their father’s estate. Hiram is also the grandchild of legendary slave Santi-Bess, one of the original transported Africans who is said to have had magical powers (Conduction), although it does not become entirely clear what these are until towards the end of the book. The first significant glimpse of this is when, whilst chaperoning Maynard on a drunken night out, the two young men somehow end up in the river. Maynard drowns but Hiram somehow emerges alive. The events which follow Maynard’s death eventually afford Hiram the opportunity to escape slavery via the Underground and he soon becomes an agent of that cause. It is not a straightforward choice for him, though, as he is forced to confront traumatic memories of his mother, who died when he was very young, and to face the many complex facets of slavery, its consequences, its victims and what it means to be free.

The book is unlike other treatments of slavery I have read (for example Washington Black, The Last Runaway) as it uses magical realism techniques as a way of differentiating between the enslaved and everyone else; Hiram, and some of the others involved in the Underground, still carry within them the songs and the stories of their ancestors, giving them access to a higher power, something which the others (the whites) have lost due to their self-brutalisation. The novel also takes a more nuanced view of the segregated society than I have seen before – within the enslaved group, there are some who are more courageous, more committed, more able and more educated than others, plus there are the ‘tasked’ (slaves) and those who have secured freedom. Within the, let’s call them the ‘whites’ group, there are the ‘quality’ (slave owners) and the ‘low’, the ‘hounds’ (slave hunters) and there are also a number of non-African-Americans involved in the movement to free the slaves. This is a more complex study of American society at the time and a more satisfying one.

The novel builds to a nail-biting denouement. It is at times brutally realistic, neither does it spare the reader’s emotions on the journey it takes us through. There are a range of good and bad endings here and that feels right. There is also a sense of no ending, the struggle to defeat racism goes on. Given the events at Downing Street this week, it is clear this is the case.

I recommend The Water Dancer. I also recommend every other book mentioned in the above review.

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Man Booker Review #4 – “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan

This was my fourth read from this year’s Man Booker shortlist and the most conventional I have read so far. The novel begins in Barbados in 1832 on a plantation owned by Erasmus Wilde, an Englishman who inherited the estate from an uncle on his mother’s side. He has been forced to manage the business as his father, a famous explorer who has spent most of his life away from home and family, shows no interest. As you might expect, Erasmus runs the plantation with cruelty and treats the slaves he has inherited (and now owns) as inhuman; they represent nothing more to him than units of work who must be managed and mistreated in order to keep them functioning. George Washington Black (‘Wash’) is a young boy at this time who has known nothing in his life apart from slavery. He lives on the plantation mainly in the care of Big Kit, a fellow slave who protects but also, at times, treats him cruelly, for what she sees as his own good, to harden him up for the life he will lead.

Washington Black imgWashington Black’s life is turned around, however, when Erasmus’s younger brother, Christopher, or ‘Titch’, arrives at the plantation. He is an inventor, a man of science like his father, who does not share his brother’s views on slavery. Titch has come to Barbados in order to work on a flying machine he has designed and asks his brother for a helper. Erasmus loans him Washington Black and the boy goes to live in Titch’s quarters, helping him with drawings and experiments as well as practical household tasks. Titch discovers that Washington has considerable artistic talent as well as abilities which will be useful in his science projects and he teaches him to read. This change in Wash’s circumstances means he can probably never go back to being with the other slaves and the question is posed whether Titch has served his protégé well.

A cousin of the Wilde brothers, Philip, arrives at Faith plantation to convey the news that the men’s father is missing presumed dead. Titch is devastated, but for Erasmus this represents yet more administrative burden as it means he must now run all the family’s business. Philip remains at Faith plantation for many weeks, staying in Titch’s quarters, so Wash gets to know him well. He is a malign presence; on one occasion, while out with Titch observing the preparations for the flying machine he shouts an instruction to Wash that causes him to stand too close to a device that explodes. Wash suffers disfiguring facial burns and it is as if Philip knew it would happen.

One day, Philip takes Wash, to help him on a shooting trip, during which the troubled Philip turns the gun on himself and commits suicide. It is immediately clear to 12 year old Wash that, as the only witness, he will be blamed and most likely executed. Wash returns to Faith to tell Titch, who is also quick to realise the implications. Titch decides they must leave immediately and he decides to launch the flying machine he has been working on. The night is a stormy one, however, and not ideal conditions for the launch of the ‘Cloud-cutter’, a bizarre contraption that seems to be a cross between a hot-air balloon and a rowing boat. Though it travels for a short distance, they have to finally crash land it on a boat in the ocean. Fortunately, the ship’s captain is sympathetic and allows the pair to sail with them to America.

Wash is now an escaped slave, and one instantly recognisable by his scarred face. Titch takes Wash with him on a search for his missing father (he does not believe that he died), but it becomes apparent that he wishes to separate from him. The two eventually find Titch’s father in the frozen north of Canada, and it is clear that the relationship between the two men is a difficult one that leaves Titch troubled. During a blizzard, Titch leaves their camp, and Wash finds himself alone and having to fend for himself, even more so when the old man eventually does die.

The rest of the novel is about how Wash makes his way in the world, evades capture by a slave-hunter and eventually finds himself in England, pursuing his passion for biology. Always, however, he is preoccupied by Titch’s abandonment of him and by the mystery of his own early life when he was transported from Africa. He finds some success and a settled life, but he becomes frustrated with the fact that his achievements will never be fully recognised, even in abolitionist England, because he is a black former slave.

This is an interesting and fascinating novel and I found the story deeply engaging. The characters are well-drawn and authentic and the issue of black slavery, the horrors of it and how it dehumanised all its victims, is vividly explored. The novel is broad in scope and beautifully written and I enjoyed it very much. Like most of the books I have read so far from the shortlist (The Long Take excepted) there is a drop in pace about half to two thirds of the way through, and I do think this is an editing issue. There are parts that could have been slimmed down in my view.

That issue aside, it remains a great story, and I recommend it.

How did you rate this Man Booker shortlisted book?

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Book review: “The Last Runaway” by Tracy Chevalier

This was one of my holidays reads and one of two books my book club chose for our summer break. It’s only my third Tracy Chevalier novel, but each time I read her I just want more! I read Girl with a Pearl Earring years ago when it was first published and then The Lady and the Unicorn a year or so ago, which I thought was wonderful. I have since picked up Virgin Blue from my local secondhand bookshop so that will be next on my list.

The Last Runaway imgOne thing that is so impressive about Chevalier is how beautifully she creates the  historical setting: the two novels I have read so far have been set in 17th century Holland and 15th century Paris and Brussels and I can only begin to imagine the amount of research she has to undertake. The Last Runaway is set in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century when parts of the country were only just being settled. Honor Bright, our main character is a young Quaker woman from Dorset in England. She has led a modest and sheltered life, but her world was turned upside down when her fiancé left her and their close-knit Quaker community for another woman. This was not only a scandal but it left Honor distraught and in a very difficult position. When her sister, Grace, is persuaded by her fiancé that they should move to America, Honor decides she must go with her, not only to support her sister, but to escape the oppression of her situation and have some chance of making a life for herself.

Their journey from Bristol to New York is arduous and Honor suffers with debilitating seasickness. As they travel the long distance from New York to Ohio, Grace contracts Yellow Fever and dies. This places Honor in a further difficult position: not only must she tell Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, that she is dead, but she is also in fear about where that leaves her as he, of course, has no obligation to support her. Honor, however, cannot face going back to England either because of the journey or the shame.

On the final leg of her journey, Honor has a frightening encounter with a local slave-hunter, Donovan. Honor is appalled both by his profession and his dangerous air, and yet also finds herself strangely drawn to him when he seems to flirt with her. This also sends her into a tailspin as it conflicts with her Quaker outlook and moral code.

Honor arrives in the small town of Wellington, close to Faithwell, her intended destination. There, she finds quarters with Belle Mills, the local milliner, who, it transpires, is also the half-sister of the mysterious Donovan. Belle warns Honor about him and it is clear there is a tension between these siblings. During her stay with Belle, Honor adapts her talent for quilting (quilting, its traditions, the patterns and its place in Quaker culture, are a strong and fascinating motif running through the novel) and shows promise as a hat-maker, endearing her to Belle and her many customers. Belle’s designs are often flamboyant, which is an anathema to Honor, who, as a Quaker, must observe plainness and modesty in all forms of dress. The two women develop a firm friendship, however, and Honor begins to feel more confident.

Honor first realises there is something strange going on when she finds a black man under a woodpile in the yard of Belle’s home. Honor is aware of the existence of the slave trade, indeed, the Quakers were an important part of the movement calling for its abolition, but this is the first time she has come so close to an escapee. She is terrified, particularly when Donovan comes searching at his sister’s property, sensing the presence of the runaway. Honor later learns that Belle is part of a network of citizens who provided the means of escape, food and shelter for runaway slaves fleeing the South to states which had already outlawed slavery – the ‘underground railroad’. Belle was what was known as a ‘station-master’.

Honor is collected from Belle’s by Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, and taken back to Faithwell, to live with him and his sister-in-law (also widowed) and to work in their shop. The domestic situation is uncomfortable for Honor, however, and her prospects only  brighten when she is wooed and then married to fellow Quaker Jack Haymaker. At first it seems like a good marriage that will improve Honor’s situation, but her mother-in-law proves to be a formidable presence, who does not conceal her contempt for her daughter-in-law and how little she has to offer when Honor goes to live with them on their isolated farm. At first, Jack is attentive and loving, but quickly becomes complacent and Honor grows increasingly miserable, despite her efforts to feel and appropriate degree of godly gratitude. Tensions deepen when Honor decides she will provide support for runaway slaves passing through their property. This is against the expressed wishes of the Haymakers. A law has been passed which makes it illegal for anyone to help a runaway, and the penalties are severe. Whilst the Quakers are against slavery, they are also against law-breaking and Honor’s actions are seen as a threat to their livelihood. Honor finds herself increasingly in conflict with the family until the point where her position becomes untenable. All the while, Donovan hovers in the background, stalking Honor and sniffing out runaways.

I will say no more as the events of the story then take quite dramatic turns. I loved the unexpected twists of the plot. I also love the way the author wove in details about the slave trade and the underground railroad (which I confess I knew very little about). Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad brought the existence of this movement to the attention of many readers for the first time, I think. I was not aware that Tracy Chevalier had also written this novel about it. I also loved the domesticity of this novel, its femaleness and the feminine craft of homemaking, particularly in relation to the skills required for good quilting. This seems to be a common theme in Chevalier’s work. I loved how strong the women were in this novel; the men do not come out looking so good!

I recommend this book highly. It’s a great story, a fascinating read and will give you an insight into worlds you may not know much about.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your views.

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