Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Book Review: The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris


Reviewer: Alan Chin

Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company (July, 2021)

Pages: 358




In the waning days of the Civil War, brothers Prentiss and Landry—freed by the Emancipation Proclamation—seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The Walkers, wracked by the loss of their only son to the war, hire the brothers to work their farm, hoping through an unexpected friendship to stanch their grief. Prentiss and Landry, meanwhile, plan to save money for the journey north and a chance to reunite with their mother, who was sold away when they were boys. But when the white town’s folk of Old Ox hear that the brothers are being paid good wages for their toil, trouble begins, and grows, and violence follows. 

Parallel to their story runs a forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers. The young men, recently returned from the war to the town of Old Ox, hold their trysts in the woods. But when their secret is discovered, the resulting chaos, including a murder, unleashes convulsive repercussions on the entire community. In the aftermath of so much turmoil, Isabelle emerges as an unlikely trailblazer, proffering a healing vision for the land and for the newly free citizens of Old Ox.

I adored this extraordinary debut novel by Nathan Harris. He has created a cast of unforgettable, sympathetic characters who are multifaceted, absorbing, and well-crafted. Each main character is vulnerable, yet also holds an inner strength and a desire to survive. They quickly captured my heart and carried me through all the explosive plot twists to a very satisfying ending. What I loved most about this story was the refined voice the author captures which propels the story along with elegance and grace.

Setting the story in Georgia just as the Civil War is ending gives the read a view into the white-supremacist world of the old south, and shows with candor the uncomfortable truth of human cruelty, and also human compassion. This view reflects race relations today. The author weaves emotion into every page, and every word holds significance. This story will keep you guessing, and keep you yearning for a positive ending for each main character. Harris writes with the skill of a master storyteller.

Haunting and powerful, The Sweetness of Water is an engaging, beautiful read that will stay with you.

About the Author: Nathan Harris holds an MFA from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. The Sweetness of Water, his first novel, was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Harris was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree in 2021. He lives in Seattle, Washington. 

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