Source: Own copy
Publication: 21 June 2021 from Tinder Press
In the dying days of the American Civil War, newly freed brothers Landry and Prentiss find themselves cast into the world without a penny to their names. Forced to hide out in the woods near their former Georgia plantation, they’re soon discovered by the land’s owner, George Walker, a man still reeling from the loss of his son in the war.
When the brothers begin to live and work on George’s farm, the tentative bonds of trust and union begin to blossom between the strangers. But this sanctuary survives on a knife’s edge, and it isn’t long before the inhabitants of the nearby town of Old Ox react with fury at the alliances being formed only a few miles away.
Conjuring a world fraught by tragedy and violence yet threaded through with hope, THE SWEETNESS OF WATER is a debut novel unique in its power to move and enthral.
Nathan Harris’s novel is a real joy. A beautifully written book, its characters will engage your heart and sweep you off you your feet. Set in the difficult times of the American Civil War, just after Lee’s surrender, it is a story of family, relationships and how we learn to find peace in the most difficult of circumstances.
The Civil War is coming to an end and in the small community of Old Ox people are finding it hard to know how to cope with the devastation that has been wrought. Families have lost sons and brothers; financial ruin sits heavily on most and no-one really knows what the future will bring. What they do know is that they are now living side by side by with Unionist soldiers and camps made by freed slaves and the impact of that is deeply unsettling.
George Walker is an unconventional man – an eccentric. He and his wife, Isabelle, have been in the depths of grief since receiving reports that their son Caleb has been killed in the war. George is an ideas man, excitable, full of warmth; a man who inspires friendship and loyalty.
So when he meets Prentiss and Landry, two brothers who are now freedmen after the Emancipation Proclamation freed them from their labour on the next door plantation he is prepared to embrace the new times. He offers them the opportunity to work for money to pay for their passage to the North. A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay is his offer. It’s a new idea in the South, and the brothers are minded to accept.
Prentiss and Landry, though, have their own troubles to overcome. Being plantation slaves has left indelible marks and both men are struggling to overcome what they have been through; wrestling with memories of unbearable sadness. Landry, who physically suffered the more, does not speak now but consoles his soul with his love of water and fountains and he knits socks for relaxation. Prentiss shoulders his sadness and wears it like a cloak. His dreams are of his mother and he cannot express his loss.
Of course, George’s neighbours are not so enamoured of his plans and they turn their backs on George and Isabelle. George and Isabelle Walker’s joy is unbounded when their son, Caleb, returns. But such joy is short lived. A moment in time and everything is undone. An act of hatred, fuelled by cowardice is committed which takes a life and results in neighbour being set against neighbour and the façade of genteel Southern life crumbles to dust. Arrogance, entitlement and parental expectations all surface as we see humanity stripped bare – and it is not at all pretty.
Nathan Harris is a beautiful writer and he creates an authentic world, pivoting at a time of change. He shows us the natural beauty of the Georgian countryside and the joy that can be wrought from the land. That love of land is epitomised in George Walker who tends his struggling crops with the love that only a true farmer has for the land. He’s starting to grow peanuts and that’s not easy work. Landry, too has a strong elemental connection to the earth and its water and that’s how he finds his inner peace. Those who work the land together understand each other better and Harris shows this respect forming a bond between the brothers and the Walkers.
Harris’ book is an overwhelming portrait of interpersonal relationships and interdependence. His characters grow throughout the novel – Isabelle in particular shows her strength and determination in ways that are unimaginable from her first appearance as the over protective mother of her only son, Caleb.
Her understanding of George and what drives him; her bravery in approaching Clementine, a mixed race woman whose existence she knows of but has never spoken about is beautifully depicted as is her friendship with Mildred, rooted in the everyday, but close to a form of love. Her strength grows throughout this novel and she is a formidable character.
Harris’s ability to write authentic characters is astonishing for a debut novelist. For these are people you come to care about or as in some cases, really actively despise and Harris is in command of these relationships and the reader’s response to them.
Verdict: This is an intelligent, evocative, rich and glorious work that wraps the reader up in the story and carries them to the deep South. His portrait of characters at a time of change is both beautifully wrought and finely detailed and though there is hatred, racism entitlement and weakness in these pages, there is also love, strength and hope. This is a must read book which thoroughly deserves its place on the Booker longlist.
Nathan Harris, a native of Oregon, is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas. He was awarded the Kidd Prize, as judged by Anthony Doerr, and was also a finalist for the Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize. He lives in Austin, Texas.