Book review: The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

There are some words that are thrown around with such giddy abandon and greeting card snappiness that we’re apt to see them as lightweight sentiments that have no real substance and can bear no real weight.

“Hope” is one of those words, filled with longing and expectation and optimism, it should be the most powerful thing on the planet; usually, however, it seems to settle somewhere between a warm-and-fuzzy idea and a laudable emotion, granted little more than inclusion in the good words category and left at that.

But in the evocatively-charged debut novel by Nathan Harris, The Sweetness of Water, hope is earth-stridingly powerful, an emotion so replete with the capacity to overturn mountains and send obstacles tumbling helplessly out of its way that very little can stand in its way.

And that kind of epic shove-the-darkness-comprehensively-aside power is precisely what’s needed in the town of Old Ox, Georgia in the aftermath of the cataclysmic disruptiveness of the American Civil War which has left the defeated South not only licking its open wounds, but awash in the kind of societal change that causes chaos on a grandly unsettling scale.

So far that chaos has been held at bay by Union soldiers who are stationed in town, as they are all over the South, keeping the peace, feeding the displaced and the lost and enforcing the emancipation of Black slaves who are tentatively but not uniformly leaving the plantations on which they are nothing more than owned and abused goods – evidence of this bigotry is found throughout the book and is as startling now as then to anyone with any decency and humanity – and finding themselves, as are their white owners in wholly uncharted waters.

“The fact was, it would have been fine for George if the journey never ended, as his homecoming would mean a reckoning with Isabelle. Of course he wished to tend to her. Of course he wished to help her face the injustices wreaked upon them both. But what they shared had limits. It was a mutual passion for independence that had brought them together in the first place, the ability to go through vast segments of the day in silence, with only a glance, a touch on the back, to affirm their feelings. In doing so the bond between them had strengthened over time, and although it was not prone to bending, its single weak point lay in the quiet embarrassment that it existed in the first place—that two individuals who resolutely dismissed the idea of needing anyone were now helpless without each other.” (P. 39)

You only have to take a cursory look at today’s United States to appreciate that the wounds opened then are far from fully healing; the emergence of Trump on the back on modern white disaffection is lamentably proof that many people still feel as if something good was lost when onetime slaves were told they could go and live as freedmen on their own terms.

One person who sees the liberation of enslaved people in the South as a good thing is George Walker, an idiosyncratic landowner who has never farmed the extensive landholdings left to him by his father, preferring to sell off parcels of his plantation to his father’s old friend, and now George’s closest confidant, Ezra, to make a living.

One day, however, he discovers brothers Landry and Prentiss on his land, the two men glad to be free of Walker’s hatefully dim neighbour Ted Morton but not entirely sure where it is they should go next, a dilemma facing many of their freed brethren, many without food or employment, who have freedom but no way to truly make it sing. (Interestingly, Harris quietly makes the point that the North, while it has good intentions, seems more concerned with compensating white owners that providing for the longterm welfare and viability of freed slaves.)

While the brothers are fearful of what Walker may do, and suspicious of any white man offering anything, they eventually agree to work for Walker as employed man, each to be paid the sum if one dollar a day to help George finally plant some peanuts, the first time he has ever actually used the land for its intended purpose.

Nathan Harris (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Despite the enormous challenges facing everyone in the story following the end of the Civil War, hope is everywhere in the astoundingly assured and emotionally evocative surrounds of The Sweetness of Water, which sings with the vibrancy of promise and possibility and which understands intimately well how powerful hope can be even in the face of a thousand reasons to call it ineffectual and pointless.

In a narrative brimming with emotional intensity and the threat of renewed hostility between the parts of society embracing change and those, sadly, the many who do not – it is worth noting again that when people feel insecure and lost, they are more apt to lash out than not, something displayed by returned Confederacy soldiers, all at a destructive loose end – The Sweetness of Water beautifully and affectingly explores what hope looks like to both Landry and Prentiss, who have more reason than not to doubt its potency but who cling to it anyway, and to the Walkers (George, wife Isabelle and son Caleb) who are out of step with many of their fellow townsfolk but care not if they are flouting social convention.

Written with an accomplished style and a rich appreciation for the power of language and empathetically expressed humanity, The Sweetness of Water feels nothing like a debut novel, rich to overflowing with insightful storytelling, fully-realised characters who leap off the page in their quietly powerful ways and a sense of the way in which reality does not always bend fully, if at all, to the persuasive truthfulness of self-evident ideals such as freedom and the innate worth of every human being.

“Now he faced reality. That it was him. Alone. The thought was a bolt of fear, but he knew that he would come to know this new life as he’d learned to know all those that had come before—for every step in life had been an obstacle, het here he was, still standing day after day ready for whatever might happen next. The shred of hope felt like salvation, and it drew him toward a deep slumber.” (P. 205)

Selected as one of Oprah’s Book Club entries for 2021, this is a novel that will change your heart, mind and soul, an achievement made all the more impressive because it does not rely on big noisy plot twists, though some are in evidence and are used well, but rather the nuanced expression of people who refuse to let go of hope but are all too aware that a great many things, and people, stand between them and the realisation of hope’s potential.

And certainly there are a great many times when each character, all of whom are close to each other and yet not, could reasonably assume that the obstacles are too great and the promise too far off to be of any real good.

Alive with as much artistry as profoundly touching humanity, The Sweetness of Water is a brilliantly immersive book, one that subsumes you in a world that feels eerily relevant to the divisions that blight American society today and yet which also echoes the sort of hope that impels people today to stand up to tyranny and bigotry, even at great personal loss.

Certainly the Walkers, who are viewed with simmering suspicion by the people of Old Ox because they dare to employ Black freedmen in the same way as a white person, face the real loss of everything they hold dear, and the enveloping, resonant brilliance of The Sweetness of Water is how it makes those threats real and palpable, driving a narrative full of as much danger as sustenance, while also reminding us of the power of hope to drive people to take great risks, stand up for what is right and to go far beyond where they have ever gone before, geographically and existentially, in the pursuit of a life far better than the one they currently know.

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