The Sweetness of Water (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel (Paperback)

The Sweetness of Water (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel By Nathan Harris Cover Image
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An Instant New York Times bestseller / An Oprah’s Book Club Pick
In the spirit of The Known World and The Underground Railroad, an award-winning “miraculous debut” (Washington Post) 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.

One of President Obama's Favorite Books of 2021

Winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

Longlisted for the 2022 Carnegie Medal for Excellence

Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

A Best Book of the Year: Oprah Daily, NPR, Washington Post, Time, Boston Globe, Smithsonian, Chicago Public Library, BookBrowse, and the Oregonian

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

A July Indie Next Pick

About the Author

Nathan Harris holds an MFA from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. The Sweetness of Water, his first novel, was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Harris was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree in 2021. He lives in Seattle, Washington. 

Praise For…

“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... All of this is drawn with gorgeous fidelity to these cautious characters, struggling to remake the world, or at least this little patch of it... Harris stacks the timbers of this plot deliberately, and the moment a spark alights, the whole structure begins to burn hot... 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.”—Ron Charles, Washington Post

“Beautiful... An instant classic... This book is profound.”—Jenna Bush Hager, Wall Street Journal

“This debut novel astonished us as much for its wise, lyrical voice as for its dense realization of a fictional small town in the American South at a rarely written-about moment, the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. We were incredibly impressed by the way it probes themes of trans-historical importance—about race, sexuality, violence, and grief—through meticulously-drawn characters and a patient examination of their relationships.”—Booker Prize committee

“As I read this masterful novel I kept thinking—this young 29-year-old is a first-time author, so how did he do this?... As the best writers can do, Nathan takes us back in time, and helps us to feel we are right there with Prentiss and Landry as they get their first taste of freedom. I rooted for them, and feared for them too."—Oprah Winfrey, Oprah Daily

“A historical page-turner about social friction so powerful it ignites a whole town . . . The novel’s questions feel urgent . . . Like a fictional companion to Clint Smith’s history, How the Word Is PassedThe Sweetness of Water joins the national conversation on race and reckoning with history . . . Nathan Harris makes those extraordinary, still-contested times comprehensible through immersive, incredibly humane storytelling about the lives of ordinary people . . . Hope is the driving force in The Sweetness of Water . . . Harris spins an increasingly complex tale about the postwar South, and he tells it in a humane and intimate way, by exploring interpersonal relationships of all kinds in and around this rural Georgia town. . . And even though the story focuses on hope and unexpected kinship, it doesn't diminish the horrors of slavery or the struggle in its wake. The events of the brothers’ former lives are never far from memory—whipping, beating, disfiguring physical abuse, family separation, near starvation, dehumanization. None of that is denied. None of it is minimized. But like the brothers, Harris tries to train the focus elsewhere for a time. As an act of pure storytelling, The Sweetness of Water soars . . . The novel is a riveting drama-filled exploration of a fracture and a healing . . . The Sweetness of Water leaves a lasting and multifaceted impression: It’s warm and absorbing, thought-provoking and humane.”—NPR

“Rich prose and such a beautifully imagined time and place… Amazing book by any account and that it’s a first novel makes it even more to be treasured.”—Bill Goldstein, NBC New York

“This is a debut novel, but the writing is so strong and gorgeous and assured, and the characters have so many layers to them, you'll keep reading just to see what's revealed next.”—Petra Mayer, NPR “Here & Now”

“A fine, lyrical novel, impressive at the level of the sentence, and in its complex interweaving of the grand and the intimate, of the personal and political.”—Alex Preston, The Guardian

“An extraordinary debut novel... Harris expertly introduces explosive plot twists across parallel threads... There’s an elegant interplay among all facets of the narrative that at once raises the stakes for all the characters while gesturing toward a larger world outside Old Ox. The overall effect is a dazzling world-building that makes the relatively compact novel feel much larger... Harris manages to weave emotion into the smallest of moments... The novel asks us to consider white-supremacist ideology not as a uniquely Southern phenomenon, but as an uncomfortable truth and feature of the entire American endeavor, especially of the criminal justice system. Old Ox is in Georgia, but it is also everywhere today. Harris writes with the confidence and command of a seasoned master of the craft. And, of course, the magic of his sentences is in the details—everything is historically accurate and painstakingly researched, whether he’s describing the reprieve of a fresh tick mattress or the complexity of growing peanuts in Georgia soil. This novel is simply the best I have read in years.”—Daniel Peña, Texas Monthly

“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.”—Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Bridge of Sighs

“Harris’s characters are multifaceted, absorbing, and extraordinarily well-developed. They transport the reader into a difficult time of complex social problems, with situations that elevate the tension with each turn of the page. As more layers of the story unfold, Harris’s captivating and shrewd prose dissects individual motives, revealing vulnerabilities and thereby exposing the characters for who they are, and what they have become. Harris creates a fascinating and compelling look into the Civil War era by taking a well-known aspect of the period, the Emancipation Proclamation, and candidly depicting the confusion in the aftermath of the new law... In a tumultuous time of instability and uncertainty, Nathan Harris brings to the foreground humanity’s aptitude for survival, compassion, and goodwill even in their darkest hour.”—Donna Everhart, New York Journal of Books

“If anyone ever had any doubts about the quality of Oprah’s book picks, this debut novel, which she’s just selected, will dispel them. It’s a moving, beautifully written story… Tensions build to a near-apocalyptic climax, and a kind of justice is finally served.”—AARP

The Sweetness of Water captured my imagination with the vivid characters the author drew and the poignant yet explosive narrative he created.”—Smithsonian

“Richly imagined… A deeply compassionate debut.”—Robert Faires, Austin Chronicle

“Harris’s lucid prose and vivid characterization illustrate a community at war with itself, poisoned by pride and mired in racial and sexual bigotry. Prentiss and Landry are technically free, but they remain trapped by a lifetime of blighted hopes and broken promises. Reconstruction will prove to be yet another lie. Harris’s first novel is an aching chronicle of loss, cruelty, and love in the wake of community devastation.”—Lesley Williams, Booklist (starred review)

“Deeply moving… Harris’s ambitious debut explores the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation in rural Georgia… Harris peoples the small community with well-developed characters… [He] writes in intelligent, down-to-earth prose and shows a keen understanding of his characters.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A timeless portrait of warring factions seeking peace… There is a shared longing at the heart of Harris’ novel… Harris draws readers into this sense of longing by exploring silences… Celebrating all manner of relationships that combat hate, this novel is a hopeful glimpse into the long legacy of American racial and civil tensions.”—Mari Carlson, Bookpage (starred review)

“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.”—Luis Alberto Urrea, author of the national bestseller The House of Broken Angels

"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."—Elizabeth McCracken, National Book Award finalist and author of Bowlaway

"The Sweetness of Water is gorgeous and deeply affecting in the tradition of James McBride and Colson Whitehead, but the book's unforgettable gift is Nathan Harris's unique voice and breathtaking vision. I cannot recall such an assured, accomplished, or extraordinarily imagined debut. Trust me, reader: Harris is a novelist of the highest order, a writer with impossibly rare talents and still rarer heart."—Bret Anthony Johnston, author of the international bestseller Remember Me Like This

“An impressive debut by a storyteller with bountiful insight and assurance."—Kirkus

“Compelling and poetic prose.”—Avis Weathersbee, Ebony

“This stunning debut novel probes the limits of freedom in a society where ingrained prejudice and inequality remain the law of the land.”—Oprah Daily (Best Books of June)

“Filled with a combination of harrowing relationships, revelations around love and an epic story of those freed, lost and found.”

Bella Morais, The Root

“As beautiful as it is violent, this moving novel explores how love can bloom even in the most harrowing of circumstances.”

Kirby Beaton, BuzzFeed

“Masterfully realized.”—Roberto Ontiveros, Austonia

“At once devastating and defiantly hopeful...  Harris is masterful in his use of characterization to access theme... Elegant and ambitious, The Sweetness of Water announces a major talent.”—Theo Henderson, Shelf Awareness

“In the right hands, historical fiction can often capture the truth of our own times more successfully than many contemporary attempts. . . . Harris uses two closely braided stories to explore the violence and the compassion lurking in every human heart. . . . Readers will often forget that this is a debut novel; one of Harris’s greatest gifts, aside from those beautifully wrought sentences, is his empathy, his ability to slip inside the skins of these men and women.”—Financial Times

“Haunting and powerful… explores the deep and lasting trauma caused by systemic oppression, violence and abuse of White people against Black people as well as the danger of naive White allies, especially those unwilling to put themselves at risk… a riveting page-turner, packed with tension that continually ratchets up… Harris masterfully balances the intimate details of each character with the big picture ideas about the legacy of slavery.”—Stuart Miller, Orange County Register

“An engaging and deep exploration of individuality and the meaning of freedom… an impressive debut novel that explores the raw trauma of social change and a collective of human lives… the story immerses the reader in a trying period of historythe beginnings of Reconstruction in the American Southwhere 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.”—Don J. Rath, Southern Review of Books

“I rejoice in the confidence and artistry of THE SWEETNESS OF WATER. Nathan Harris’ photo may be a Dorian Gray-like portrait, belying his actual age, as he looks far too young and innocent to have written such a beautiful, mature and heart-wrenching novel the first time out… The book reads like a ready-made classic. It raises so many conversations that are vital to today’s world—sexuality, race, the power and meaning of freedom, the possibilities created by love, the leftovers of grief. Nathan Harris gives us a reason to buckle down even harder to ensure that the battles of those who came before us are not wasted. THE SWEETNESS OF WATER is a triumphant new voice that takes on ages-old but oh-so-relevant topics.”—Jana Siciliano, Bookreporter

"Harris’ narrative demonstrates that even in the most harrowing situations, a glimmer of hope can be unearthed, and that, despite mankind’s deep divisions and differences, our shared humanity can’t be denied."—Karin Gillespie, Augusta Chronicle

“An emotional and humane story and a surprising page turner full of twists and turns. The period the book covers and the issues the book raises feel strikingly resonant right now.”—Carole V. Bell, The Grio

“The tenderness in Harris’s work is shown on every page with his thoughtful plotting and prose. The story weaves with a romance between two soldiers to effectively highlight the ramifications the war took on their minds, bodies, and souls.”—Debutiful (10 Books You Should Read in August)

Product Details
ISBN: 9780316461245
ISBN-10: 0316461245
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Publication Date: May 3rd, 2022
Pages: 368
Language: English