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Reviews of The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

The Sweetness of Water

by Nathan Harris
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  • First Published:
  • Jun 15, 2021
  • Paperback:
  • May 2022
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About This Book

Book Summary

A profound debut about the unlikely bond between two freedmen who are brothers and the Georgia farmer whose alliance will alter their lives, and his, forever.

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. Prentiss and Landry, meanwhile, plan to save money for the journey north and a chance to reunite with their mother, who was sold away when they were boys.

Parallel to their story runs a forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers. The young men, recently returned from the war to the town of Old Ox, hold their trysts in the woods. But when their secret is discovered, the resulting chaos, including a murder, unleashes convulsive repercussions on the entire community. In the aftermath of so much turmoil, it is Isabelle who emerges as an unlikely leader, proffering a healing vision for the land and for the newly free citizens of Old Ox.

With candor and sympathy, debut novelist Nathan Harris creates an unforgettable cast of characters, depicting Georgia in the violent crucible of Reconstruction. Equal parts beauty and terror, as gripping as it is moving, The Sweetness of Water is an epic whose grandeur locates humanity and love amid the most harrowing circumstances.


An entire day had passed since George Walker had spoken to his wife. He'd taken to the woods that very morning, tracking an animal that had eluded him since his childhood, and now night was falling. He'd seen the animal in his mind's eye upon waking, and tracking it carried a sense of adventure so satisfying that all day he could not bear the thought of returning home. This had been the first of such excursions all spring, and tramping through splintered pine needles and mushrooms swollen from the morning rain, he'd come upon a patch of land he'd yet to explore in full. The animal, he was sure, was always one step away from falling into his line of sight.

The land his father had passed down to him was over two hundred acres. The large red oaks and walnut trees that surrounded his home could dim the sun into nothing more than a soft flicker in the sky passing between their branches. Many of them as familiar as signposts, long studied over many years from childhood on.

The brush ...

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There are so many aspects of this novel I felt were sheer perfection. The plot is intricate and unpredictable, the characters have remarkable depth, and there's enough detail about the era for wonderful historical fiction. Harris's portrayal of the grieving process is dead-on, as is his perception of the complexities of human nature. Perhaps the biggest standout, though, is the writing style. The author captures the cadence of 19th-century prose, adding to the story's authentic feel while spinning lush descriptions of time and place...continued

Full Review (700 words)

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(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

Oprah Daily
This stunning debut novel probes the limits of freedom in a society where ingrained prejudice and inequality remain the law of the land.

Washington Post
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....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.

Booklist (starred review)
Harris's lucid prose and vivid characterization illustrate a community at war with itself, poisoned by pride and mired in racial and sexual bigotry...Harris's first novel is an aching chronicle of loss, cruelty, and love in the wake of community devastation.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Harris writes in intelligent, down-to-earth prose and shows a keen understanding of his characters, and while the plot leads to several tragic events, there's a tinge of hope at the end. This character study is credible and deeply moving.

Kirkus Reviews
[A] compelling postbellum saga...An impressive debut by a storyteller with bountiful insight and assurance.

New York Times
A writer who dives into a gay love story along with one of mutual regard and affection between white and formerly enslaved people in the Deep South at the beginning of Reconstruction is clearly someone who wants to accomplish a lot and pose big questions. I applaud the novel's ambition...[However] [t]here are scenes that ring true with what we know about the experience of slavery...The novel doesn't do the world-building work that would make the civil, supportive relationships among the four characters convincing.

Author Blurb Elizabeth McCracken, National Book Award finalist and author of Bowlaway
Nathan Harris is, plainly, one of the most exciting new writers I've read in years. He has a profound understanding of the human soul---and of the vast variety of human souls on the earth---and writes sentences of immense beauty and strangeness. His work is funny and wrenching, brilliant and exact. The Sweetness of Water is an extraordinary book, and just the start of an extraordinary career.

Author Blurb Luis Alberto Urrea, author of the national bestseller The House of Broken Angels
To open Nathan Harris's first novel is to enter a trance. I can't think of any other book out there quite like it. The richness of his language and the exquisite details of the lives he creates produce a kind of waking dream, equally lyrical and threatening.

Author Blurb Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Bridge of Sighs
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.

Reader Reviews

Cathryn Conroy

This Novel Is a Literary Gift: An Extraordinary Story That Is Unsettling but Always Insightful
This may be a perfect novel. The plot is compelling. The characters are painted with such vividness that they seem real. And the writing…oh my goodness. The writing sings. It is beautiful, lyrical, and poetry in prose. It's the kind of writing that ...   Read More
Tony C.

Not What You Would Expect
“The Sweetness of Water” by Nathan Harris continues the tradition of emotionally moving novels based on the Reconstruction. It weaves together two stories, one about formerly enslaved people and another about Confederate soldiers, both scary when you...   Read More
audrey geer

I urge you to read this book!
This book is extraordinary! As one who often reads historical fiction, I can say that it is rare to have characters so fully drawn. The post-Civil War South was a brutal place and the lives of everyone were disrupted. This book allows you to see ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Peanut Farming in the United States

George Washington Carver standing in field, holding piece of soil The central character in Nathan Harris's The Sweetness of Water decides to grow peanuts on his land in Reconstruction-era Georgia.

Although peanuts are often considered nuts, as the name would suggest, they're actually legumes like beans or peas. Legumes, according to the Peanut Institute, are defined by their edible seeds enclosed in pods and "provide the best source of concentrated protein in the plant kingdom." Along with other legumes, peanuts have become an important food worldwide as a result of their high nutritional value.

No one is sure exactly when humans began to cultivate peanuts, although they are believed to have originated in South America, where 3,500-year-old pottery shaped like peanuts and ceramics decorated ...

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Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

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