The Sweetness of Water

Written by Nathan Harris
Review by Marlie Wasserman

Nathan Harris’s debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, reads as though the author has honed his craft for years. The story begins immediately after Appomattox, as the residents of a Georgia town confront losing the Civil War. George Walker, a white landowner whose land lies fallow, hears that his son has been killed. Searching for meaning, George decides to cultivate his acreage. For labor, he hires brothers newly emancipated from their slave owner. Angry residents of the town cannot understand why George pays a fair wage to former slaves. Harris focuses on pairs—married couple George and Isabel who move from distant to loving, former slave brothers Prentiss and Landry who carve a new life for themselves, lovers Caleb and August who come together and apart repeatedly. George remains the tale’s backbone. One of the strengths of the book is that as characters change, they change in subtle ways that feel organic.

Although readers will have a sense of dread from the beginning to the end, Harris is light with foreshadowing. His well-paced plot includes horrific scenes, but rarely what we expect based on assumptions about the history of race relations. Harris’s word choices and syntax strike the right note, true to the period but easy to grasp.

Harris presents diverse characters—men and women, rich and poor, Black and white, straight and gay. He varies point of view so that as we know what one character thinks, we also learn what others think of him or her. Harris characterizes women with particular skill. Even in 1861-1863, they forge lives for themselves in ways that do not echo contemporary acts of agency but feel honest to the time. Perhaps prostitute Clementine is too good to be true, but her portrayal is the only off note in a magnificent novel.