The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Overview

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • 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

“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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399590603
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/24/2019
Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 278
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of The Beautiful Struggle, We Were Eight Years in Power, and Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award in 2015. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Coates lives in New York City with his wife and son.

Read an Excerpt

And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south.

I had always avoided that bridge, for it was stained with the remembrance of the mothers, uncles, and cousins gone Natchez-way. But knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.

And she was patting juba on the bridge, an earthen jar on her head, a great mist rising from the river below nipping at her bare heels, which pounded the cobblestones, causing her necklace of shells to shake. The earthen jar did not move; it seemed almost a part of her, so that no matter her high knees, no matter her dips and bends, her splaying arms, the jar stayed fixed on her head like a crown. And seeing this incredible feat, I knew that the woman patting juba, wreathed in ghostly blue, was my mother.

No one else saw her—not Maynard, who was then in the back of the new Millennium chaise, not the fancy girl who held him rapt with her wiles, and, most strange, not the horse, though I had been told that horses had a nose for things that stray out from other worlds and stumble into ours. No, only I saw her from the driver’s seat of the chaise, and she was just as they’d described her, just as they’d said she’d been in the olden days when she would leap into a circle of all my people—Aunt Emma, Young P, Honas, and Uncle John—and they would clap, pound their chests, and slap their knees, urging her on in double time, and she would stomp the dirt floor hard, as if crushing a crawling thing under her heel, and bend at the hips and bow, then twist and wind her bent knees in union with her hands, the earthen jar still on her head. My mother was the best dancer at Lockless, that is what they told me, and I remembered this because she’d gifted me with none of it, but more I remembered because it was dancing that brought her to the attention of my father, and thus had brought me to be. And more than that, I remembered because I remembered everything—everything, it seemed, except her.

It was autumn, now, the season when the races came south. That afternoon Maynard had scored on a long-shot thoroughbred, and thought this might, at last, win the esteem of Virginia Quality he sought. But when he made the circuit around the great town square, leaning back, way back in the chaise and grinning large, the men of society turned their back to him and puffed on their cigars. There were no salutes. He was what he would always be—Maynard the Goof, Maynard the Lame, Maynard the Fool, the rotten apple who’d fallen many miles from the tree. He fumed and had me drive to the old house at the edge of our town, Starfall, where he purchased himself a night with a fancy, and had the bright notion to bring her back to the big house at Lockless, and, most fatefully, in a sudden bout of shame, insisted on leaving the back way out of town, down Dumb Silk Road, until it connected to that old turnpike, which led us back to the bank of the river Goose.

A cold steady rain fell as I drove, the water dripping down from the brim of my hat, puddling on my trousers. I could hear Maynard in the back, with all his games, putting his carnal boasts upon the fancy. I was pushing the horse as hard as I could, because all I wanted was to be home and free of Maynard’s voice, though I could never, in this life, be free of him. Maynard who held my chain. Maynard, my brother who was made my master. And I was trying all I could to not hear, searching for distraction—memories of corn-shucking or young games of blind man’s bluff. What I remember is how those distractions never came, but instead there was a sudden silence, erasing not just Maynard’s voice, but all the small sounds of the world around. And now, peering into the pigeonhole of my mind, what I found were remembrances of the lost—men holding strong on watch-night, and women taking their last tour of the apple orchards, spinsters remanding their own gardens to others, old codgers cursing the great house of Lockless. Legions of the lost, brought across that baleful bridge, legions embodied in my dancing mother.

I yanked at the reins but it was too late. We barreled right through and what happened next shook forever my sense of a cosmic order. But I was there and saw it happen, and have since seen a great many things that expose the ends of our knowledge and how much more lies beyond it.

The road beneath the wheels disappeared, and the whole of the bridge fell away, and for a moment I felt myself floating on, or maybe in, the blue light. And it was warm there, and I remember that brief warmth because just as suddenly as I floated out, I was in the water, under the water, and even as I tell you this now, I feel myself back there again, in the icy bite of that river Goose, the water rushing into me, and that particular burning agony that comes only to the drowning.

There is no sensation like drowning, because the feeling is not merely the agony, but a bewilderment at so alien a circumstance. The mind believes that there should be air, since there is always air to be had, and the urge to breathe is such a matter of instinct that it requires a kind of focus to belay the order. Had I leapt from the bridge myself, I could have accounted for my new situation. Had I even fallen over the side, I would have understood, if only because this would have been imaginable. But it was as though I had been shoved out of a window right into the depths of the river. There was no warning. I kept trying to breathe. I remember crying out for breath and more I remember the agony of the answer, the agony of water rushing into me, and how I answered that agony by heaving, which only invited more water.

But somehow I steadied my thoughts, somehow I came to understand that all my thrashing could only but hasten my demise. And with that accomplished, I noted that there was light in one direction and darkness in another and deduced that the dark was the depths and the light was not. I whipped my legs behind me, and stretched out my arms toward the light, pulling the water until, at last, coughing, retching, I surfaced.

And when I came up, breaking through dark water, and into the diorama of the world—storm clouds hung by unseen thread, a red sun pinned low against them, and beneath that sun, hills dusted with grass—I looked back at the stone bridge, which must have been, my God, a half mile away.

The bridge seemed to be almost racing away from me, because the current pulled me along and when I angled myself to swim toward the shore it was that current still, or perhaps some unseen eddy beneath, pulling me downriver. There was no sign of the woman whose time Maynard had so thoughtlessly purchased. But whatever thoughts I had on her behalf were broken by Maynard making himself known, as he had so often, with hue and cry, determined to go out of this world in the selfsame manner that he’d passed through it. He was close by, pulled by the same current. He thrashed in the waves, yelled, treaded a bit, and then disappeared under, only to reappear again seconds later, yelling, half treading, thrashing.

“Help me, Hi!”

There I was, my own life dangling over the black pit, and now being called to save another. I had, on many occasions, tried to teach Maynard to swim, and he took to this instruction as he took to all instruction, careless and remiss at the labor, then sore and bigoted when this negligence bore no fruit. I can now say that slavery murdered him, that slavery made a child of him, and now, dropped into a world where slavery held no sway, Maynard was dead the minute he touched water. I had always been his protection. It was I, only by good humor, and debasement, that had kept Charles Lee from shooting him; and it was I, with special appeal to our father, who’d kept him countless times from wrath; and it was I who clothed him every morning; and I who put him to bed every night; and it was I who now was tired, in both body and soul; and it was I, out there, wrestling against the pull of the current, against the fantastic events that had deposited me there, and now wrestling with the demand that I, once again, save another, when I could not even conjure the energy to save myself.

“Help me!” he yelled again, and then he cried out, “Please!” He said it like the child he always was, begging. And I noted, however uncharitably, even there in the Goose facing my own death, that I had never before recalled him speaking in a manner that reflected the true nature of our positions.

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The Water Dancer: A Novel 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 43 reviews.
Anonymous 4 months ago
I didn't want it to end...a captivating story that seemed almost real.
Anonymous 4 months ago
This is a book to savour, with it's striking language and descriptions. The back story on each character led me deep into the era and minds of the societies of those times. Wonderfully revealing, it actually gives hope to our current social and political situations.
JCNash 4 months ago
The Water Dancer follows the tumultuous life of Hiram Walker, a man born to slavery by his slave mother and white tobacco plantation-owner father. Hiram is gifted with the ability of perfect memory, and maybe something even more extraordinary, and thus becomes a target for involvement in "The Underground," an organization rumored to free black men and woman from "the task" all over Virginia. There is so much in this book to unpack, that I think I would need to read it at least two more times to really feel like I know the book, and that in itself is a strength. Nearly every page, Coates's eloquent writing uncovers a new perspective, a new way of thinking about slavery, about the relationships between the people of the task and the people of quality, about the efforts of those abolitionists that would see slavery destroyed, but perhaps with not the best of intentions. On my first reading, because I will read this book again, I was struck by the personal character development of Hiram, who starts off so young and in many ways naive despite his tasked upbringing, and begins to see that his motives are not everyone's motives. He learns that just because he remembers everything that he's been told does not mean he has listened, that freedom looks different for every person of the task based on their own experiences. Coates brings not just Hiram, but a whole cast of characters to full color through his tale, none of them true heroes (except maybe Harriet Tubman, because of course she is), many of which are part-villian, depending on where you stand in relation to Hiram. I also LOVED that Harriet Tubman appears throughout the narrative as a guiding light for Hiram. Many stories based on slavery would not dare to bring an actual historical figure into a purely fictional, sometimes fantastical setting, but Coates does this in away that is both entertaining and respectful of the history. My only criticisms is that at times I struggled with the pacing of the novel, and occasionally the prose felt repetitive, but given how much there is to love about this novel (which I could not even fully go into in the space I have here) I'm happy to excuse a few lulls. This is the kind of novel that can be studied, that can be picked through over and over for new gems and new layers of insight, should you be up to the challenge. Thank you Netgalley and One World Press for my free review copy of this novel. All opinions are my own.
ElleRudy 5 months ago
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, he wrote on the idea of serious writers and their characters being white. Classic literature has been taught to us as historically being by white men about white culture, where other perspectives are interpreted as inferior. At one point, Coates considered a question by Saul Bellow that asks who the Tolstoy of the Zulus is. Later, he accepted the response by Ralph Wiley, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” and in that sentiment affirmed that stories by black authors about black characters matter just as much as white ones, but without reducing them to merely a ‘black version’ of their counterparts. Though he’s written both Black Panther and Captain America’s comic series, this is Coates’ first full-length fictional work. Taking place during the middle of the 19th century, Hiram is a member of the Tasked in Virginia. He serves the Quality until he attempts to join the Underground and discovers the power of Conduction. The terms used are intuitive and historical, stemming from language used in the old south by both slaveholders and those enslaved. Most characters are created by the author, but historical locations, events and figures are skillfully interwoven with the magical realism of the novel to create a truly remarkable story. Coates is a talented writer, and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of his. But, the beginning especially, was pretty slow going. Eventually the plot picks up a bit, but there were so many breaks in the story where Hiram would reflect deeply, and he felt like a stand-in for the author to have yet another introspection. These ideas seem to work so much better in Coates’ non-fiction books, but at times took away from the overall narrative he was trying to tell here. The book could have been much shorter without taking away anything crucial. I did enjoy it overall, though, and this was an excellent debut novel for an already very accomplished author.
Anonymous 3 months ago
I couldn't put this book down! The attention to detail wove a insightful tale!
Shobizreads 4 months ago
I was lucky enough to get an arc of The Water Dancer through Netgalley. When I heard Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing a fiction book, I knew I had to read it. I purposefully didn't read a synopsis ahead of time as I like to go in with as few expectations as possible. So, I was surprised that it employed magical realism and for me, that was sometimes a struggle as that is not an easy genre for me. This story is about slavery and is told from the point of view of an orphaned male slave who was born to a slave mother and a white plantation owner in Virginia. We see complicated dynamics of his relationship with his father, his white half-brother (who he serves) and others in Virginia society including other slaves, free men and whites. The themes of exploring the slave narrative, the complicated rules and scenarios they had to navigate with little to no control and what was acceptable behavior is rich, nuanced and thought-provoking. The writing style employs both flashbacks and magical realism, so several times, I had to go back and re-read a few pages to make sure I was understanding what was going on as the language itself employed in the book was reminiscent of the time period and therefore, not what I'm use to reading either. The story was compelling and the first half moved a little slowly for me, but once I was invested in the characters and understanding the story more readily, I couldn't put it down. This was not a book that I could have devoured in 1 or 2 sittings, instead I read it over my entire vacation week, taking time to think through and immerse myself in the time period and in the character's voice. I prefer more of a straight up historical fiction retelling without fantasy elements, but if you loved The Underground Railroad, this is probably right up your ally. And if you haven't read that or didn't love it, I would say that this is an important read and worth fighting through if it feels complicated or difficult. As a white person, I didn't grow up reading narratives from other cultures and as an adult reader, I try to include diverse authors as much as possible - so that I can struggle through trying to relate to another culture, seeing things through their cultural lens, listen to their stories and continue to develop empathy
Anonymous 4 months ago
I went in to this knowing the topics were ones that would be difficult to read. I've read many of Coates' previous work in The Atlantic and he has always been able to write about such topics in a way that you are able to understand the deep emotions involved with out being too overwhelmed. He's done it again with The Water Dancer. This book was masterfully written and really allows you to learn about the psychological implications and affects slavery had and continues to have on the black community. I don't have any personal experience with this and I don't know nearly enough about the topic, only what was taught in school, so this book was an eye-opener in a lot of ways.
LionessofLiteracy 4 months ago
The water dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates This is a vivid and beautiful piece of artistry and I tip my hat to the author. I really loved the slave narrative and how it really shaped the whole book. It takes place, for the most part, in Virginia at a plantation called Lockless. The story centres around Hiram , he remembers almost nothing of his mother and he is the black son of the plantation owner., fairly common back in those days. He also possesses a memory like you wouldn’t believe, and another talent that I won’t spoil because, believe me, you need to read this book. This story will captivate you and pull your right into a life of slave brutality, devastating losses and the death of ones self. The book is so powerfully written that I’m going to need a few days to digest what I read and then read the whole thing again. I know the author usually writes non-fiction but I had never heard of them before. I don’t read non-fiction either but I’m actually quite tempted to give this author a shot. The slaves are aptly named the tasked, and they crave so much more than they have. They yearn for freedom, and to feel part of the world that has little care for them. Freedom comes from an unusual place, and a little magical realism is played here. The characters, really bring to the light the struggles and the heartaches that come from being so disenfranchised and low ranking in a world they don’t really understand. I adored the pace of the novel. I never found it slow and I really was quite heart torn watching their stories unfold. If you love a little heartbreak in your novels and profound determination then this is the novel for you. I give it 4.5 stars out of 5. I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was and I really am blown away by the imagination and realism that was bought to life in these pages. I have 4 words to say….. GO BUY IT NOW! #thewaterdancer
Denice_L 12 days ago
A wonderfully written story with a unique twist that centers on a time in history that has been reviewed and reviled by many authors. This book is not only good, it is elevated by the quality of the writing and the skillful manner in which Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the story of Hiram. A life lived first in slavery and later in the battle against slavery blends the violence of the era with the first person narration to bring readers into the story. This is not my usual genre but this author has taken me on an emotional roller coaster with this story of a life well lived.
Anonymous 17 days ago
The book was well designed but was overly descriptive and wordy. It's a very emotional book and handles the topic of slavery with the respect it deserves. However, the magical system that the author created is subpar. The main character uses "magic" in the form of traumatic memories to transport slaves from one body of water to another. Its a slow burn of a book that has some interesting points but lacked a climax.
MaryND 19 days ago
I really wanted—and fully expected—to love this book: I loved Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” and was intrigued that another writer I admire was turning his attention to the same historical period and slavery narrative. And at times I really did love it—the character of Hiram, the enslaved, brilliant son of his white owner who becomes a manservant to his dullard half-brother Maynard, is beautifully developed and written, and Hiram’s relationship with Thena, the embittered older woman who takes him into her care after Hiram’s mother Rose is sold “down Natchez way” is nuanced and lovely. The book’s early scenes, set at the ironically named Lockless plantation where Hiram labors alongside the other “Tasked” to serve the “Quality,” are interesting and well observed, managing to convey the horror of slavery without resorting to graphic depictions of violence, (The situation with Hiram’s love interest Sophia brought a particularly ugly aspect of slavery into focus, and a scene where a mother walks in anguish alongside her chained son as he is sold and sent south was one of the most heart wrenching I have ever read.) But then Hiram is involved in an escape attempt that is not exactly successful, and which sets the book on another path which, though still interesting, was less believable and worked less well for me as narrative. Part of my issue was the magical realism that repeatedly surfaced in the story—the concept of “water dancing” was just too vague to be compelling as a plot device yet Hiram’s attempts to harness this power are supposed to provide suspense and move the story forward. There’s still much to like about the book in this later section—I particularly enjoyed the scenes set among the free black society in Philadelphia, which I knew little about before and which Coates made come alive for me—but in general “The Water Dancer” became a little meandering and hard to stick with by this point. I know it’s not fair to compare “The Water Dancer” to “The Underground Railroad,” but it’s hard to resist when both are stories of escapes from slavery via the Underground Railroad with elements of magical realism. In the end, Whitehead’s fiction experience gives him the edge and produced a much more compelling book for me, but I’ll still be looking for Coates’ next foray into fiction. 3.5 stars. Many thanks to NetGalley and One World/Random House for providing me with an ARC of this title in exchange for my honest review.
PassionatelyPerusing 24 days ago
Thank you to One World Books / NetGalley for the early digital copy in exchange for an honest review! Trigger warnings: Sexual, physical, and mental abuse/harassment and mention of suicide. This poignant novel is written by the same author—Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote Between the World and Me, a National Book Award Winner. This one is a mashup of magical realism and literary fiction. Emotions weave their way through the novel, not giving the reader time to keep up. It’s both heartbreaking and heart-wrenching, and everything in between, all shoved into 400 pages of genius.   No, this isn’t a five-star read. I dropped a star because I didn’t enjoy the parts dealing with magical realism. I didn’t understand it, and because of that I didn’t enjoy that aspect of the story as much. Literary fiction is difficult for me to get to through and adding anything else to that is overwhelming. Other than that, the last 20-30% didn’t catch my interest as much as the beginning. The Lockless house in Elm County, Virginia is run by Howell Walker—Quality—high class. He owns Tasks—slaves who help him produce tobacco crops. One of his slaves is Hiram Walker, his son, whose mother was a wonderful water dancer named Rose. Howell sold her when Hiram was young and he has no recollection of her. Howell has another white son named Maynard, who is next in line to watch over the Lockless house when Howell can no longer do so. Hiram and Maynard end up in the river one day, Hiram lived and Maynard wasn’t so lucky. Hiram was saved by his peculiar power called “conduction”. When he woke up, he knew that he needed to escape the only place he has ever known. The journey takes him into the wilderness, the deep south, and it forces him into being part of the underground war—slavers against the enslaved. Hiram’s only goal is to save the family he left behind.  The characters are three-dimensional and they’re distinguishable. They are characters you think you know, but you don’t.  Hiram is one of my new favorite fictional characters. He’s determined, tough, honorable, and kind. I’m unsure how he even survived everything he endured. He always put in 100% and it really shows and even pays off in the end. Coates brought something special to the book world. He took a basic book about slavery and spiced it up with his own blend of seasonings. He doesn’t just call them slaves; they are called Tasks. Instead of high class—Quality. Then there are the Lows, the whites who are below the Quality because they are in the business of selling slaves. They will never rise above their status. He also adds the magical elements. It wasn’t my favorite but I know there are people who will LOVE it. The Water Dancer is a novel unlike any other. I highly recommend it!
mississippimomreads 25 days ago
This novel was aptly chosen as the latest title in Oprah's Book Club! I am so grateful to NetGalley and Penguin Randomhouse for the opportunity to read The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is a story of a tasked man with a dream to escape the bondage of slavery at a corrupt Virginia plantation that eventually takes him to the intricate network of the Underground Railroad. There is so much history and heartbreak (and magic!) and the novel is full of beautiful prose, I am going to have to read it again just to absorb the beautiful language he used since I read it the first time to pursue the plot lines and to see what was going to happen to dear Hiram! The main character Hiram has a photographic memory, lost his mother at age 9, and he is an orphaned slave whose father is the master and has a brother for whom he is tasked to serve. I am from Mississippi and had never heard the term "gone Natchez Way" until I read this book. I recently learned that Natchez was a significantly large slave trading port but had never heard the phrase before. This book has definitely spawned my interest to read and learn more about The Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman.
Anonymous 26 days ago
Don't waste your time on this book. Typical book from Oprah's book club promoting her agenda. Our whole book club stopped reading it.
Anonymous 26 days ago
Ta-Nehisi Coates paints a picture with his words. A remarkable story that you don't want to end. Beautiful! We are all underground searching for freedom.
Anonymous 27 days ago
Beautifully written.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Outstanding, a real page turner.
Anonymous 3 months ago
This has been one of the best novel's I've read in a long time!
Anonymous 3 months ago
Interesting read
Anonymous 3 months ago
A great read
tradeoff 4 months ago
Quite simply, one of the most compelling novels of this or any year. Coates' firstforay in to fictikon has all the strength, complexityh, craft and emotional engagement of his prevkiously lauded nonfiction. Hiram Walker, who was Tasked to the plantation owned by his own father, is a young man of singjular talent, and even when this otherwise grimly realistic novel of Virginia plantations before the Civil War veers in to magic realism to explain Hirawm's inherited gift for making memories come to life, it doesn't seem like fiction. Together with Colson Whitehead's novel, the Nickel Boys, a portrait of our blood-spattered hbistorical past emerges that cannot be forgotten.
Anonymous 4 months ago
Very creative writing language but needs more action and better magic system building. There were good plot opportunities to build characters and storyline that were missed. It's not easy transitioning from one genre to another. Hat's off to the author for trying to mix American history, romance, and fantasy.
Anonymous 4 months ago
Very good book, Excellent Read
Nabanita 4 months ago
Nice book
Anonymous 4 months ago
What an amazing debut novel for Ta-Nehisis Coates! I did little else while reading this. A unique telling of slavery and the Underground Railroad that captures the imagination, grabs your heart, steals your breath and kidnaps your emotions. Loved it! I anticipate a bestseller status for the beautifully imagined and elegantly written novel.