The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris is an impressive debut novel that explores the raw trauma of social change and a collective of human lives, each in its own transition. The story immerses the reader in a trying period of history – the beginnings of Reconstruction in the American South – where the loss of a way of life, however judged, parallels the sense of loss of the human characters. With its rich characterization and exquisite prose, The Sweetness of Water shows us that history and its inhabitants are incapable of forgetting a disturbing past but nonetheless capable of moving on.
The novel begins at the end of the Civil War near the town of Old Ox, Georgia. Two formerly enslaved brothers, Prentiss and Landry, leave the Morton plantation after the announcement of Emancipation and are discovered by homesteader George Walker living in the woods near his property. The brothers agree to work on Walker’s land to earn enough money to travel North and search for the mother who was sold when they were boys. Meanwhile, George and his wife Isabelle are mourning the loss of their son Caleb in the Civil War, only to discover that he had deserted the Confederate army and survived. Caleb returns home, hoping to rekindle a relationship with his childhood friend August Webler, who served with Caleb and knows of his desertion. After the two men are discovered having a sexual encounter in the woods, a murder leads to upheaval in the lives of George, Isabelle, Prentiss, and Caleb.
Three intersecting relationships are deftly portrayed in parallel throughout the novel. There is the strained marriage of George, a loner and an outcast in the town, haunted by images of a beast from his childhood, and Isabelle, who feels abandoned and troubled by George’s lack of affection and appreciation. In contrast is the close relationship between Prentiss, intelligent, hard-working, determined to reunite his family, and Landry, the victim of frequent whippings that have made him lose any reason to speak. Then there is a complex struggle between August and Caleb, who is fearful of being judged for his desertion and tortured by the possibility of rejection by his former friend. In the background, white landowners and merchants deal with their loss of independence and a way of life under the oversight of the Union, while Black people try to adapt to newfound freedom for which they are unprepared and that the whites do not accept. The principal characters experience the fallout of divisive social change and the sense of loss it creates in their lives.
The bonds between these characters are solid but cautious. Once the tenuous connection of their shared grief over the loss of Caleb dissipates upon his return, the marriage of George and Isabelle feels at risk, a delicate balance between fidelity and the desire to be oneself. The relationship between Caleb and August is a jarring mix of childlike affection and brutality, a need to control. While he remains staunchly devoted to Landry and protective of him, Prentiss also longs to be unburdened and to build a life of his own.
The shadow of otherness permeates the lives of all of these characters. The Walkers, for example, become pariahs in Old Ox after it becomes known that they are employing the formerly enslaved brothers. Curiously, they do not seem to care, which only heightens the intensity of their isolation. The recently freed brothers are never accepted as free, and Prentiss is torn between the assertion of his entitlement to a living wage and not making his and his brother’s lives any harder. The forbidden relationship between Caleb and August, never deeply explored, remains hidden, like their encounter in the woods, cementing a perverse bond between the men after their childhood friendship has ceased to be relevant.
The narrative shifts points of view multiple times, principally among George, Prentiss, and Caleb. Harris adeptly handles these changes without ever losing the continuity of the story. His characterization of the principal characters is so effective that the reader will want to see more of the secondary ones. Harris allows the reader to see Isabelle closer in the second half of the novel, though Landry’s point of view is shown only in one chapter.
Wonderfully portrayed friendships warm these otherwise lonely and troubled characters, such as Isabelle’s relationship with Mildred Foster, a proud and overly protective widow, who coaxes out Isabelle’s willingness to give, and George’s friendship with Clementine, a prostitute whom he occasionally visits to relieve his loneliness and to ask for marital advice. A brief but beautifully depicted encounter between Landry, who has taught himself to knit, and Isabelle, who discovers the socks he makes on her clothesline, brings out the humanity of two tortured souls. Landry discovers a tenderness in himself. “He hadn’t known that his hands were allowed to be delicate like hers – hadn’t known they were capable of such creation.” And so he also realizes he is not alone in the pain of his voicelessness, as Isabelle is “a woman begging to be heard, a woman who herself had gone unseen.”
The somewhat formal tone of Harris’ writing, its solid sentence structure and authoritative voice, serve to uplevel the story. What could have been simply an engaging tale of violence and despair is also a deeper exploration of individuality and the meaning of freedom. In addition, Harris’ use of the outdoor setting is striking, such as the descriptions of the pond visited by both the brothers and by Caleb and August, its “surface covered with floating lilies, shoots of cattails like digits reaching out toward the sun,” and the violent wind that appears in several disruptive parts of the story.
The novel shows us a sense of hope in change and movement forward, but that the painful parts of one’s past are never forgotten. Both for the American South and the individual characters of The Sweetness of Water, even when time creates enough distance, those parts are instilled in us. As Prentiss realizes, “There will always be certain memories that survive the fall and stood amid the rubble. Monuments of loss.” Those monuments will always be with these characters, with this time in history, but they can be walked past, acknowledged, and regretted.
The Sweetness of Water
By Nathan Harris
Little, Brown and Company
Published June 15, 2021