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.
That this powerful book is Nathan Harris’s debut novel is remarkable; that he’s only 29 is miraculous. His prose is burnished with an antique patina that evokes the mid-19th century. And he explores this liminal moment in our history with extraordinary sensitivity to the range of responses from Black and White Americans contending with a revolutionary ideal of personhood ... All of this is drawn with gorgeous fidelity to these cautious characters, struggling to remake the world, or at least this little patch of it ... Harris stacks the timbers of this plot deliberately, and the moment a spark alights, the whole structure begins to burn hot ... What’s most impressive about Harris’s novel is how he attends to the lives of these peculiar people while capturing the tectonic tensions at play in the American South ... As an author, Harris eventually exercises a kind of fiery Old Testament justice, which is at once satisfying and terrifying. But if this is an era — and a genre — that has no room for encouragement, The Sweetness of Water is finally willing to carve out a little oasis of hope.
Harris’s characters are multifaceted, absorbing, and extraordinarily well-developed. They transport the reader into a difficult time of complex social problems, with situations that elevate the tension with each turn of the page. As more layers of the story unfold, Harris’s captivating and shrewd prose dissects individual motives, revealing vulnerabilities and thereby exposing the characters for who they are, and what they have become ... Harris creates a fascinating and compelling look into the Civil War era by taking a well-known aspect of the period, the Emancipation Proclamation, and candidly depicts the confusion in the aftermath of the new law on slave owners, and the slaves themselves. In a tumultuous time of instability and uncertainty, Nathan Harris brings to the foreground humanity’s aptitude for survival, compassion, and goodwill even in their darkest hour.
... paints a timeless portrait of warring factions seeking peace. ... Harris draws readers into this sense of longing by exploring silences: George’s meditative hunts, Landry’s muteness, Caleb’s hidden trysts, Prentiss’ pent-up anger and Isabelle’s secluded mourning. Insinuating dialogue, delivered with eloquent Southern reserve, and hostile eruptions between the Walker household and the Confederates explore the flip side of silence ... Celebrating all manner of relationships that combat hate, this novel is a hopeful glimpse into the long legacy of American racial and civil tensions.