Nathan Harris’s debut The Sweetness of Water (Little, Brown and Company 2021) was a highly anticipated novel that was immediately met with applause. An instant bestseller, it is an Oprah’s Book Club Pick and it made President Obama’s summer reading list. Additionally, it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Everyone loves this book.
Everyone but me.
I have mixed feelings. Don’t get me wrong – it’s beautifully written, and I am very excited to see what comes next from Nathan Harris. My issues are due to the hollowness that echoed toward the latter half of the book as related to both Caleb and Prentiss, and the delayed development of Isabelle’s character. I also would have liked to have seen more of Landry and Prentiss’s relationship, as well as the relationship between Landry and Isabelle that we’re only given snippets of, and much of that through Isabelle’s lens looking backward.
The novel is set just after the Emancipation Proclamation in Georgia. Prentiss and Landry have left the plantation where they’d been enslaved are heading North when they encounter George Walker. The older man has found himself lost on his property and seeks their assistance, and the two brothers lead him home. George offers them both a job with fair wages. George has never worked a day in his life but has decided he wants to leave a legacy on the land left to him by his father. As such, he’s determined to build a peanut farm and he enlists Prentiss and Landry to help him. This does not sit well with the former slave owner or the townsfolks who don’t like that he’s paying them fair wages while their sons are returning from war and need work. George, a very easy to love character, doesn’t give a shit what they think.
Landry is the heart of the novel – he is the sweetness in the water. He’d been severely beaten on a regular basis as a child and doesn’t speak. He can, but he stammers and stutters so much that he prefers not to. He loves water and that love of water has been his undoing his entire life.
George’s son, Caleb, is in love with his childhood friend, August. I hated August and I hated the abusive and toxic relationship. The reader is told early in the novel how August had brutally beaten Caleb when they were children while playing a game called “master and slave.” When their relationship becomes physical, it is equally as violent and disturbing.
And then there is Isabelle, George’s wife. She is the silent one, nearly invisible and most certainly not seen. At least that is how she feels, and it is how she is written for the first part of the novel. Landry sees her, though. And through him, she finds her voice and purpose. My issue is how immediate her development is – and perhaps it is intentional; remove the men, and suddenly she can be seen. However, her character could have been treated a bit better to build to that moment, and this would not have lessened the impact of her relationship with Landry.
In short, The Sweetness of Water is both sweet and bitter. While there are some flaws, it’s an easy read that is beautifully written. I would recommend it, but I do think it leaves a hollowness in its wake.
I don’t love it, but I most decidedly do not hate it.
Read this book.