The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
Perfect for fans of Colson Whitehead, this debut novel by Nathan Harris will grab you from the very first sentence.
The Sweetness of Water is a story set at the tail end of the U.S. Civil War as the Emancipation Proclamation begins to spread across the Confederacy. Former slave brothers, Prentiss and Landry, set out from their plantation in search of a new path forward. As they begin their journey, they encounter George Walker. Walker, and his wife, Isabelle, are in the midst of immense grief as they have lost their only son to the war. George hires the brothers to help him work his land as equals and paid labor, sending shockwaves throughout the local town. The unintended consequences of these decisions will shape each of these characters to the end of their life.
When I received this book as a part of my Parnassus First Editions subscription, I was initially really intrigued by it. I may have mentioned this a time or two before but I am a graduate student in history. I thrive on the ethical grey areas of history and the complications that occur with large scale conflicts. It's my jam. Surprisingly, I have managed to still maintain my love for historical fiction even though it will often drive me crazy with its inaccuracies. Yet, it is always with some hesitation that I pick up historical fiction anymore because since all of my readings for my program are historical tracts, I usually want to fully immerse myself in a different world. One that is less complicated than reality. Then to add fuel to the hesitation fire, I found out that Harris's debut novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year. What is the Booker Prize, you may ask? It is a very prestigious award that is notorious for picking books that feel almost impossible to read if you are me. Anytime, I see that a book is associated with a Booker nomination, I get a little nervous.
Nonetheless, I have made the goal that I will read all of my subscription books this year, so I jumped into The Sweetness of Water. I'm so glad that I did! Harris's novel is a deeply nuanced portrait of life as the Civil War began to wind down. He captures the complexities of the Emancipation Proclamation on both Black slaves and whites living in the South. For both those who supported the proclamation and those deeply entrenched in their view of white superiority. Each of the characters goes on a journey and experiences a reckoning of their perceived identities through different experiences.
The book is both incredibly detailed, but the world is also very large at the same time. Harris created the perfect vessels to explore really complicated themes. George and Isabelle must contend with their grief over the loss of their sons. Prentiss and Landry experience the hope that for the first time they may be able to govern themselves. There is beauty in the way that these characters connect and interact with one another. Even when sadness occurs. Without spoiling the novel, it is eerily prescient that it tackles the topic of racial injustice and reminds readers that these injustices began during Reconstruction.
I have the feeling that The Sweetness of Water will become a novel that is on many a list about Civil War novels in the US. It is really refreshing to see slavery and the Black experience during this time finally becoming a focus of not only Civil War literature, but being brought to life by Black authors who are able to lay a claim to this period of history. Many stories are written about slavery, but not enough are written by those whose ancestors suffered at the hands of a brutal system. Harris joins the ranks of authors like Colson Whitehead and Yaa Gyasi who are revitalizing this era with their voices.
Any lovers of historical fiction will likely be swept away by this story, but it would also serve as a wonderful addition to any readers TBR stack.
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