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The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

The Sweetness of Water is one of those novels that you simply cannot put down even though you’re in danger of missing the next England World Cup game or burning the dinner.

Set in the American South at the tail end of the American Civil War, this Booker Prize Winner 2021 shines a light on what it must have felt like for a small-town community suddenly cast into a new world for which it is neither equipped, nor in large part willing, to accept. Central to the novel is the plight of brothers Landry and Prentiss, newly created freedmen who are trying to come to terms with their freedom after a life of bondage – the only life they have ever known.

When I started reading The Sweetness of Water, there was almost a forehead-slapping moment when I realised:

“My god! How on earth did society adopt to this vast social upheaval?”

There had been no planning and no preparation for what it would mean to disband overnight, a system of bondage that had been in place for centuries. There was no social network in place for freed slaves who suddenly found themselves without homes or work and exposed to the constant threat of violence from the residual hatred of a defeated South.

Pursuing themes of loss, open and violent racism, and redemption, Nathan Harris weaves a compelling tale of lives, love and survival in a world fraught with uncertainty and riddled with danger.

Synopsis of The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

Struggling to come to terms with their sudden freedom, brothers Landry and Prentiss hide out in the forest while they try to figure out how they’re going to survive without a penny to their names and with just the clothes on their backs.

Owner of the land on which the brothers are taking refuge, George Walker is reeling from the news of his soldier son’s death at the tail end of the conflict. When he encounters Landry and Prentiss, George offers the brothers paid employment on his land, a move which angers the local community, including Morton, the brothers’ former ‘owner’.

We learn about the horrifying abuse Landry and Prentiss experienced at the hands of Morton, abuse so extreme that Landry has lost the ability to speak in anything other than painfully slow stutters. Despite the knife-edge on which they are all existing, bonds of trust begin to blossom between the brothers, and George and his wife… until events take an unexpected turn, and the farm and its occupants find themselves the target of the town’s suspicion and derision.

Inevitably, tragedy ensues.

My review

Tackling an entirely new aspect to such a well-documented period in American history, Nathan Harris has created a novel that feels like it should always have existed, and it’s hard now to understand why no one has ever considered how it would actually feel to be a freed slave. Nathan has created these brothers and through them, given us a window into a seismic social change that has never been looked through before.

At the core of the novel’s genius is its power of characterisation.

Through Prentiss and Landry we feel the pent-up anger and frustration of those who, up until now, held no power over the course of their own lives. Although their freedom should feel good, what it really means is facing a dangerous and uncertain future in a society still riddled with the forces of intolerance and humiliation.

Through George and Isabelle Walker, we understand the isolation of being out of step with neighbours and with the prevailing culture of the South. Through them, we live through the inexorable and momentous consequences of actions that fly in the face of that culture.

Like leaves caught in a whirlwind, these characters are pitched and swirled by the opposing forces of a bitter conflict fought in small town America where money and guns speak far louder than justice and law. And like them, the reader is left breathless and reeling from the experience.

Although The Sweetness of Water deals with themes that make for some very uncomfortable reading at times, refusing to sugar-coat the shocking reality of systemic racism, it is ultimately uplifting and leaves the reader with a sense of hope for the future.

As we near the end of 2022, there are two books I’ve reviewed this year that I would urge you to read, this is one of them (the other is Still Life by Sarah Winman).


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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Thanks for the heads-up / review Andrea. I’ll definitely check out ‘The Sweetness of Water’ (great title btw). I’ve just started ‘Still Life’ and am already hooked. So your recommendations are finding a home with this reader. Keep ‘em coming! R.

    • Cheers, Richard. It’s so nice to have readers on the same wavelength as you, isn’t it? For my part, I finally got round to reading Ishiguro’s ‘Klara and The Sun’ on your recommendation and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Very intriguing and a marked departure from his earlier work. I really appreciate the recommendation and I’ll echo your words right back at you… keep ’em coming! Andy 🙂

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