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The Sweetness of Water


The Sweetness of Water

I love reading debut novels and discovering new literary voices. However, it is rare that a book comes to you as the first in an author’s public profile but feels like it has been a classic of the ages. I rejoice in the confidence and artistry of THE SWEETNESS OF WATER. Nathan Harris’ photo may be a Dorian Gray-like portrait, belying his actual age, as he looks far too young and innocent to have written such a beautiful, mature and heart-wrenching novel the first time out.

As the Civil War comes to its sad end, three men live in a town called Old Ox --- George Walker, a homesteader who, with his wife, Isabelle, is trying to maintain his farm, and two brothers, Prentiss and Landry, who are newly freed slaves. When the siblings are on their road to freedom, they happen upon George, who hires them to help him on his property. The boys want to save money so they can journey north and be reunited with their mother.

"The book reads like a ready-made classic...[and] is a triumphant new voice that takes on ages-old but oh-so-relevant topics."

The Walkers, who just lost their only son, treat the young men with love and care, taking their parental concern and giving it fully to them. As they go about their farming, a couple of Confederate soldiers engaged in a romantic relationship are found during a tryst in the woods. This causes a ruckus in town, escalating into chaos, but Isabelle steps in and resolves matters with her boldness and caring.

THE SWEETNESS OF WATER is a tale told in the kind of direct communicative prose that befits the story. It is not overly dramatic or melodramatic, both of which a novel this full of important and volatile episodes could be in less capable hands. It is about race where race isn’t the central issue, impossible love where love isn’t the primary topic, brotherhood and family where they are not the main course either. Instead, the story is developed so beautifully and is so finely wrought that all of those things and more are brought to us through this very human story. It is not moralistic, yet there is a moral. It is not complicated, yet there are many stories intersecting here. In this way, the book feels as if it could have been written by Flannery O’Connor.

The characterizations are multi-dimensional, each of which has such intense wants and desires, and the obstacles they face are so very difficult. There are truly terrible situations, yet there is never a lack of hope. The Georgia Reconstruction era is remembered most often as the cinematic melodrama of GONE WITH THE WIND, but a look at this period makes concrete the fact that everyone, regardless of race, gender or status, had something to contribute to the rebuilding of society at that time. Isabelle here pushes hope. These stories point to a difficult future but one in which the taboos of the past eventually may become the pillars of the new Old Ox. Like an ox, it moves slowly but surely from one chaos to another, tamping the ground into a stable path that almost anyone can follow.

The book reads like a ready-made classic. It raises so many conversations that are vital to today’s world --- sexuality, race, the power and meaning of freedom, the possibilities created by love, the leftovers of grief. Nathan Harris gives us a reason to buckle down even harder to ensure that the battles of those who came before us are not wasted. THE SWEETNESS OF WATER is a triumphant new voice that takes on ages-old but oh-so-relevant topics.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on July 16, 2021

The Sweetness of Water
by Nathan Harris

  • Publication Date: May 3, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316461245
  • ISBN-13: 9780316461245