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.”—Ron Charles, Washington Post
“Beautiful... An instant classic... This book is profound.”—Jenna Bush Hager, Wall Street Journal
“This debut novel astonished us as much for its wise, lyrical voice as for its dense realization of a fictional small town in the American South at a rarely written-about moment, the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. We were incredibly impressed by the way it probes themes of trans-historical importance—about race, sexuality, violence, and grief—through meticulously-drawn characters and a patient examination of their relationships.”—Booker Prize committee
“As I read this masterful novel I kept thinking—this young 29-year-old is a first-time author, so how did he do this?... As the best writers can do, Nathan takes us back in time, and helps us to feel we are right there with Prentiss and Landry as they get their first taste of freedom. I rooted for them, and feared for them too."—Oprah Winfrey, Oprah Daily
“A historical page-turner about social friction so powerful it ignites a whole town . . . The novel’s questions feel urgent . . . Like a fictional companion to Clint Smith’s history, How the Word Is Passed, The Sweetness of Water joins the national conversation on race and reckoning with history . . . Nathan Harris makes those extraordinary, still-contested times comprehensible through immersive, incredibly humane storytelling about the lives of ordinary people . . . Hope is the driving force in The Sweetness of Water . . . Harris spins an increasingly complex tale about the postwar South, and he tells it in a humane and intimate way, by exploring interpersonal relationships of all kinds in and around this rural Georgia town. . . And even though the story focuses on hope and unexpected kinship, it doesn't diminish the horrors of slavery or the struggle in its wake. The events of the brothers’ former lives are never far from memory—whipping, beating, disfiguring physical abuse, family separation, near starvation, dehumanization. None of that is denied. None of it is minimized. But like the brothers, Harris tries to train the focus elsewhere for a time. As an act of pure storytelling, The Sweetness of Water soars . . . The novel is a riveting drama-filled exploration of a fracture and a healing . . . The Sweetness of Water leaves a lasting and multifaceted impression: It’s warm and absorbing, thought-provoking and humane.”—NPR
“Rich prose and such a beautifully imagined time and place… Amazing book by any account and that it’s a first novel makes it even more to be treasured.”—Bill Goldstein, NBC New York
“This is a debut novel, but the writing is so strong and gorgeous and assured, and the characters have so many layers to them, you'll keep reading just to see what's revealed next.”—Petra Mayer, NPR “Here & Now”
“A fine, lyrical novel, impressive at the level of the sentence, and in its complex interweaving of the grand and the intimate, of the personal and political.”—Alex Preston, The Guardian
“An extraordinary debut novel . . . Harris expertly introduces explosive plot twists across parallel threads . . . There’s an elegant interplay among all facets of the narrative that at once raises the stakes for all the characters while gesturing toward a larger world outside Old Ox. The overall effect is a dazzling world-building that makes the relatively compact novel feel much larger . . . Harris manages to weave emotion into the smallest of moments . . . The novel asks us to consider white-supremacist ideology not as a uniquely Southern phenomenon, but as an uncomfortable truth and feature of the entire American endeavor, especially of the criminal justice system. Old Ox is in Georgia, but it is also everywhere today. Harris writes with the confidence and command of a seasoned master of the craft. And, of course, the magic of his sentences is in the details—everything is historically accurate and painstakingly researched, whether he’s describing the reprieve of a fresh tick mattress or the complexity of growing peanuts in Georgia soil. This novel is simply the best I have read in years.”—Daniel Peña, Texas Monthly
“What a gifted, assured writer Nathan Harris is. He does what all novelists are supposed to do—give birth to vivid characters, people worth caring about, and then get out of their way. The result is better than any debut novel has a right to be. With The Sweetness of Water, Harris has, in a sense, unwritten Gone With the Wind, detonating its phony romanticism, its unearned sympathies, its wretched racism.”—Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Bridge of Sighs
Though the Civil War is over when this novel opens, the threat of violence and the persistence of bigotry still loom over a Georgia town.
Somewhere between the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox and the beginning of Reconstruction, George Walker and his wife, Isabelle, live alone and emotionally estranged from each other on their family homestead just outside the village of Old Ox. They are mired in grief over the presumed death of their only son, Caleb, a missing Confederate soldier. At this low point in the Walkers’ lives, Prentiss and Landry, Black brothers freed from slavery, wander onto the couple’s barren land seeking little more than temporary shelter on their northbound trek in search of their mother, who was sold away from them in childhood. George reaches out to the two Black men for help in restoring his farmland with a peanut crop. In return, he offers to pay them whatever he can to help subsidize their journey. Warily, the brothers agree to George’s request, and eventually the three of them succeed in coaxing plants from the reluctant ground. Then one windy morning, Caleb returns home bearing an ugly facial scar and stories of his incarceration in a Union prison camp. What he doesn’t tell them is that he was beaten with a rifle butt by his captors because he’d deserted his own side and in the process, also deserted his wealthy boyhood friend and secret lover August Webler, now also a war veteran returned to Old Ox and soon to wed a local girl by a prearranged agreement. Despite his fury over Caleb’s betrayal and his impending marriage, August rekindles their romance, which sets off a series of tragic events involving murder, injustice, and, eventually, wholesale destruction. Throughout the tumult, all three members of the Walker family discover reserves of unexpected courage and resolve—and one can’t help believing that if most of the other characters carried within them the empathy and grace displayed by the author of this compelling postbellum saga, most of the awful things that happen to them and their immediate surroundings would have been avoided.
An impressive debut by a storyteller with bountiful insight and assurance.