The Sweetness of Water (Oprah's Book Club)

A Novel


By Nathan Harris

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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


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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 George encountered was waist-high and coated with burrs that clung to his trousers. He’d developed a hitch over the last few years, had pinned it on a misplaced step as he descended from his cabin to the forest floor, but he knew this was a lie: it had appeared with the persistence and steady progress of old age itself—as natural as the lines on his face, the white in his hair. It slowed him, and by the time he caught his breath and took a moment to assess his surroundings, he realized that silence had overtaken the woods. The sun, above his head only moments before, had faded into nothingness over the far corner of the valley, nearly out of sight.

“I’ll be.”

He had no idea where he was. His hip ached as though something was nestled there and attempting to escape. Soon the need for water overtook him, the roof of his mouth so dry his tongue clung to it. He took a seat on a small log and waited for total darkness. If the clouds gave out, the stars would appear, which was all he needed to map his way back home. His worst miscalculation would still guide him to Old Ox, and although he loathed the idea of seeing any of those sorry desperate sorts in town, at the very least one of them would offer a horse to return him to his cabin.

For a moment the thought of his wife came to him. By now he was typically arriving home, the candle Isabelle had left on the windowsill guiding his final few steps. She would often forgive these absences of his only after a long, silent hug, the black ink from the trees leaving faint handprints on her dress, irritating her all over again.

The log beneath him yawned and George’s rear end sank into the waterlogged mess. Only as he moved to stand, to pat himself dry, did he see them sitting before him. Two Negroes, similar in dress: white cotton shirts unbuttoned, britches as ragged as if they’d fitted their legs into intertwined gunnysacks. They stood stock-still, and if the blanket before them had not swayed in the wind like some flag to signal their presence, they might have disappeared in the foreground entirely.

The closer one spoke up.

“We got lost, sir. Don’t mind us. We’ll be moving on.”

They came into clearer focus, and it was not the words that struck George, but that the young man was precisely the age of his Caleb. That he and his companion were trespassing was beside the point entirely. In the nervous chatter of his voice, the eyes that darted like those of an animal hiding from prey, the young man gained George’s sympathy, perhaps the only morsel of it left in an otherwise broken heart.

“Where is it you two come from?”

“We’re Mr. Morton’s. Well, was.”

Ted Morton was a dimwit, a man who, if offered a fiddle, would be as liable to smash it against his own head to hear the noise as put a bow to its strings. His parcel of land bordered George’s, and when an issue arose—a runaway most often—the ensuing spectacle, rife with armed overseers and large-snouted dogs, lanterns of such illumination that they kept the entire household awake, was so unpleasant that George often deferred all communications with the family to Isabelle just to avoid the ordeal. But to find Morton’s former property on his land now carried with it a welcome irony: Emancipation had made the buffoon helpless to their wanderings, and for all his great shows of might, these two men were now free to be as lost as George was in this very instance.

“Our apologies,” said the man in front.

They began to bundle up their blanket, collecting a small knife, a bit of stripped beef, pieces of bread, but stopped once George started in again. His eyes wandered the ground in front of him, as if searching for something lost.

“I’ve been following a beast of some size,” he said. “Black in color, known to stand on two feet but usually found on four. It’s been years since I saw the creature with my own two eyes, but I often wake to its image, as if it’s trying to alert me to its presence nearby. Sometimes, on my porch, I’ll be dozing off, and the memory of it is so strong, so clear, that it travels through my head like an echo, bounding through my dreams. As far as tracking it, I’m afraid to say it’s gotten the upper hand.”

The two men looked at one another, then back at George.

“That’s…well, that’s mighty curious,” the smaller one said.

In the last remnants of light, George could make out the taller one, a man whose eyes were so placid and displayed so little emotion that he seemed simple. His lower jaw was cracked open wide, revealing a hanging slab of teeth. It was the other one, the smaller one, who continued to do the talking.

George asked them their names.

“This here is my brother, Landry. I’m Prentiss.”

Prentiss. Did Ted come up with that?”

Prentiss looked at Landry, as if he might have a better idea.

“I don’t know, sir. I was born with that name. It was either him or the missus.”

“I imagine it was Ted. I’m George Walker. You wouldn’t happen to have some water, would you?”

Prentiss handed over a canteen, and George understood he was expected to ask after them, investigate why they were here on his land, but the issue took up such a small space in his thinking that it felt like a waste of what energy he had left. The movements of other men interested him so little that the indifference was his chief reason for living so far from society. As was so often the case, his mind was elsewhere.

“I get the sense you’ve been out here some time. You wouldn’t—you wouldn’t have happened to have seen that animal I spoke of?”

Prentiss studied George for a moment, until George realized the young man’s gaze was trained past him, somewhere off in the distance.

“Can’t say I have. Mr. Morton had me on some of his hunting trips, I seen all sorts of things, but nothing like you described. Mostly fowl. Those dogs come back with the birds still quivering in their mouths, and he’d have me string ’em up to the others, and carry ’em home on my back. I had so many you couldn’t see me through the feathers. Other boys would be jealous I got to go off for the day, but they didn’t know the first thing about it. I’d rather be in the field than have that load on my back.”

“That’s something,” George said, considering the image. “That’s really something.”

Landry pulled apart a chunk of meat and handed it to Prentiss before taking one for himself.

“Don’t be rude, now,” Prentiss said.

Landry looked over to George and motioned to the meat, but George declined with a shake of his head.

They sat in silence, and George found their aversion to speaking welcome. Other than his wife, they seemed like the only individuals he’d come upon in some time who would rather leave a moment naked than tar it with wasted words.

“This is your land, then,” Prentiss finally said.

“My father’s land, now mine, one day it was to be my son’s…” The words fell away into the night and he began again on a different course. “Now it’s got me turned around and I don’t even know which way is what, and these damned clouds in the sky.”

He sensed the woods themselves taunting him and went to stand as if in protest, only for the pain in his hip to coil itself into a tighter knot; with a yelp he fell back onto the log.

Prentiss stood and walked over to him, concern in his eyes.

“What’d you go and do to yourself? All that yelling and carrying on.”

“If you knew what hell this day has been you might yell yourself.”

Prentiss was near him now, so close George could smell the sweat on his shirt. Why was he so still? So suddenly unnerving?

“If you wouldn’t mind at least being quiet for me, Mr. Walker,” he said. “Please.”

George recalled the knife that had been beside the half-wit with such urgency it nearly materialized in the darkness; and he realized then that beyond the confines of a household, lost in the woods, he was simply one man in the presence of two, and that he had been a fool to assume his own safety.

“What is this about? My wife will be calling for help any moment, you do know that, don’t you?”

But the two men’s frozen, desperate gazes were once again not on him, but beyond him. A whipping sound broke out at George’s side, and he turned to find a rope and the counterweight of a large rock beside it: the makings of a fine-tuned snare holding the leg of a jackrabbit writhing a few feet along the way. Landry rose up, faster than George might have thought possible, and gave his attention over to the rabbit. Prentiss took a step back and waved off the moment.

“I didn’t mean to worry you,” he said. “We just. We ain’t had something land in that trap yet…We ain’t had a proper meal in some time, is all.”

“I see,” George said, collecting himself. “Then you’ve been out here longer than I first thought.”

Prentiss explained then that they had departed from Mr. Morton’s a week ago; had taken what little they could carry on their backs—a sickle left in the fields, a bit of food, the bedrolls from their pallets; and had not made it any farther than where they stood now.

“He said we could take a few things from the cabins,” Prentiss said of Morton’s minor generosity. “We ain’t steal a thing.”

“No one said anything about stealing. Not that I would care, he has more than a simpleton like himself could ever make use of. I just wonder why, really. You could go anywhere.”

“We plan to. It’s just nice.”

“What’s that?”

Prentiss looked at George as if the answer was right before him.

“To be left alone for a time.”

Landry, ignoring them, had chopped the loose bits of an oak tree limb into feed for a fire.

“Ain’t that why you’re out here yourself, Mr. Walker?”

George was shivering now. He began to speak of the animal, how it had led him here, but the sound of Landry’s chopping interrupted his train of thought, and he found himself, as had been the case since the preceding day, reflecting on his son. When the boy was younger, they had walked these very woods together, chopping wood and making a play of such things as if a hearth, permanently aflame, was not awaiting them at home. With that memory the others streamed forth, the small moments that had bonded the two—putting him to bed; praying with him at the table, empty gestures with winks passed from one to the other like whispered secrets; wishing him off to the front with a handshake that should have been so much more—until they dissolved in the face of the boy’s best friend, August, having come to visit him that very morning with news of Caleb’s death.

They’d met in George’s small study. August looked very much like his father, the same blond hair, the boyish features and the air of vague regality rooted in little but family folklore. August and Caleb had left Old Ox in their clean butternut grays and polished boots, and George expected his son to return a muddied, threadbare savage; foresaw himself and Isabelle as the dutiful parents who would nurse him back to normalcy. In light of this, something felt indecent about August’s evening wear: the frocked shirt, the pressed waistcoat with the gold timepiece hanging freely. It appeared as if he’d already discarded his time at war, and this meant Caleb, too, had become part of the past, long before George had even known his son was gone from him forever.

While August sat across from George’s desk, George himself could only bear to stand at the window. August informed him that he’d been injured, a bad tumble on patrol that had led to his discharge only a week earlier, the first day of March. He looked perfectly healthy to George, who figured the boy’s father had paid to see him to safety as the war in its last throes grew more dangerous. But his suspicions weighed nothing against what it was that had brought them to this moment. To this room. And so August began to speak, and even with his first utterance, George grasped the hollowness of the boy’s words, the theatrics of his delivery; could picture him in his runabout, coming to his property, going over each sentence, each syllable, for the greatest possible effect.

He told George that Caleb had served honorably and had welcomed death with honor and courage; that God had willed him a peaceful passing. Caleb had been going off with this boy since they were both so young that neither reached George’s midsection. He recalled a time they’d run into the woods to play, only to return with Caleb so mortified, August so filled with glee, that George took the contrast as the result of some competition, an occasion that might lend itself to a moral lesson. Take your losses like a man, now, George had said. But later, when Caleb would not sit for dinner, winced even in consideration of doing so, George pulled the boy’s trousers down. Slash marks, some still flush with blood, the others bruised to a deep purple, covered his backside. He told George of the game August had hatched, Master and the Slave, and that they had only been assuming their proper roles for the afternoon. The pain was not from the marks, Caleb went on, but from the fact that he could not conceal them and that George might tell August’s father. He had to swear to the boy that he would keep it secret.

Standing in his study, George sighed and made it clear to August that he knew he was lying. His son could lay claim to many traits, but bravery was not one of them. This single comment was all it took for the varnish of August’s act to peel away; he stumbled over his words, crossed his legs, checked his timepiece, desperate for an exit that George would not provide.

No, no. His son had died. And he deserved to know the truth of what had happened.

George had not seen Landry start the fire before him, but light from the flame overtook their corner of the forest and cast the bigger man in relief; he retrieved the skinned rabbit and spitted the bloody mess on the end of a shaved branch for roasting. The clouds had parted and the sky was full of stars so clear, so magnificent, it was as if they’d been arranged just for the three of them.

“I should be heading home,” George said. “My wife will be worried. If you could give me some assistance…I’d make it worth your while.”

Prentiss was already standing to help.

“I mean, you two could stay here, if you wished to. For a time.”

“Let’s not worry about that right yet,” Prentiss said.

“And if there is something else I could assist you with, perhaps.”

Ignoring George, Prentiss put a hand beneath his arm and lifted him in one swoop, before the pain could set in.

“Just like that,” Prentiss said. “Slow-like.”

They walked as one through the trees with Landry trailing them. Though George needed the stars for guidance, it was all he could do to keep his sight straight ahead to stop himself from falling over, from giving in to the pain. He placed his head in the nook where Prentiss’s chest met his shoulder and allowed the man to balance him.

After some time had passed, he asked if Prentiss knew where they were.

“If this is your land as you say it is, then I’ve seen your home,” Prentiss said. “It’s a beautiful place, isn’t it? Not far from here. Not far at all.”

George realized as they reached the clearing how absolutely exhausted he was. At once, the entire night, which had been suspended in time, unspooled itself before him, and reality presented itself in the form of his log cabin, standing before him and the black outline of what could only be Isabelle carved in shadow against the front window.

“Can you make it?” Prentiss asked. “Best you go it alone from here.”

“Might we wait a few moments longer?” George asked.

“You need to rest, Mr. Walker,” Prentiss pleaded. “There’s nothing for you out here.”

“True, but.” How unlike him. It must have been the dehydration. Yes, he was disoriented, a bit confused, and the tears were merely a symptom of his predicament. It was only a few of them at that. “I’m not myself. Excuse me.”

Prentiss held him. He did not let go.

“I don’t—I haven’t told her, is all,” George said. “I could not bear it.”

“Told her what, now?”

And George thought of the image August had left him with that morning of his boy abandoning the trenches he’d helped dig, so gripped with fear as to soil himself, to cower and run toward the Union line as though they might pity his screams of terror, might see him through the glut of smoke and grant his surrender and not shoot him down with the rest. It occurred to him that Caleb might have inherited some flawed trait from his father. For who was the bigger coward, the boy for dying without courage, or George for not being able to tell the boy’s own mother that she would never see her son again?

“Nothing,” George said. “I’ve been alone for such long periods, sometimes I speak to myself.”

Prentiss nodded, as if some reasoning might be found in his words.

“That animal you spoke of. Mr. Morton taught me some tricks through the years. Tomorrow, perhaps, I can help you track it.”

There was pity in his words, and George, sensing the irony of a man living with so little offering him charity, straightened himself up and harnessed what little energy he still possessed to regain his composure.

“That won’t be necessary.”

He looked Prentiss over once, considering that this might be the last time they ever laid eyes on each other.

“I do appreciate your assistance, Prentiss. You’re a good man. Good night, now.”

“G’night, Mr. Walker.”

George hobbled to the front steps, the cold already slipping away from his bones before the front door had opened and the heat of the fire found him. For the slightest moment, before going inside, he peered back at the forest, silent and void of life in the darkness. Like there was nothing there at all.


George’s love of cooking was just one of his many eccentricities. Isabelle had tried early in the marriage to take the role of house cook, but her husband’s opinions on the preparation of a ham hock were no different from his thoughts on the hunting of a mushroom, the building of a tree swing: refined, specific, and executed with concision time and time again. Sitting at the table for breakfast, she would watch his routines with a mix of fascination and delight. These were habits he had perfected over time as a bachelor—the cracking of an egg was a one-handed affair, a smooth motion of the thumb, a rather feminine swoop that broke the shell in two; the buttering of a hot pan involved a quarter-inch slab, greased in semicircular motions until it hissed across the surface and disappeared.

He was more satisfied during the cooking than the eating, the latter of which seemed merely a slog to get through. They spoke few words at the table. Yet this morning was different. He’d somehow risen before her, an accomplishment in and of itself, considering how late he’d been out. And when she came downstairs, she found him at the table, staring at a spot on the wall, like the splintered wood might get up and carry on with its day.

“How about some breakfast?” she asked.

His face was expressionless. He’d never been handsome, for the balancing involved in the physiognomy of beauty had escaped him. His nose was large, his eyes small, and his hair fell in a ring like a well-placed laurel wreath; his belly had the taut rotundity of a pregnant woman and was always safely stowed away in the midsection between his suspenders.

“I could go for some hotcakes,” she said.

He finally made notice of her.

“If it’s not a bother, sure.”

Standing in front of the stove, preparing the batter, she felt she’d forgotten the procedure altogether. She created it from memory, not from her own cooking, of course, but from watching her husband over almost a quarter century now. The cabin was modest—two stories—and stairs cut across the center of the home. From the kitchen, she could make out George sitting in the dining room, but whenever he shifted he disappeared behind the stairwell, only to reappear again.

“Perhaps a bigger stack than usual?” she called over. “You must have built up quite an appetite last night.”

This would be her only attempt to draw forth an explanation. It wasn’t that he did not tolerate questioning (he was rather indifferent), but that greater investigation rarely led to greater discovery. She had learned to save her words.

“Did you find it?” she asked in conclusion. “The creature. I imagine you were after it again.”

“It escaped me,” he said. “Very unfortunate.”

The cakes sizzled—bubbles opening and closing again like a fish struggling for air above the water’s surface. George would turn them now. For the sake of experiment, she let them be.

She brought two plates to the table, returned moments later with two cups of coffee. There was a rhythm to their eating. One would take a bite, and then the other, and it was in these slight recognitions—no different from the way they exchanged deep breaths while falling asleep—that the brushstrokes of their marriage coalesced day after day, night after night, the resulting portrait rewarding but infuriatingly difficult to interpret.

When George had returned home the night before, his face was so flush, his shivering so severe, she did not know whether to wash him down with a rag or slip him under the covers. Under the pain of his hip, he wavered with every step, agonizing his way up the stairs and refusing assistance. He could barely get a sentence out, let alone an explanation for his absence, and he fell asleep so quickly she wondered if he’d already been in a dream state, his body leading him back to where he’d belonged the entire night. She realized that other than the mention of passing interest in tracking a beast of some mystery—the same one he’d sought with his father years ago, an adventure they’d shared in, the same beast she’d never seen with her own two eyes—the man was intent on keeping the secrets of his nights to himself. Which would have been more irritating had she not had a secret of her own.

Not that she wished to. She could scarcely recall keeping anything from George, and the burden of her silence was a weight so heavy it sometimes felt difficult to breathe.

“How was the social?” George asked, his eyes never leaving his plate.

“As tedious as they’ve all been of late. Katrina left after tea and I joined her. They talk only of who’s returned, or rumors of who might return, and I simply can’t bear it. They treat their boys being paroled with the self-satisfaction of a victory in hearts. Which was why I stopped playing that game completely. Their winning is fine and all, but it’s the possibility that I might lose…”

“One must lose with grace, Isabelle,” George said between bites.

“Not in this instance.”

On this, his eyebrows rose. “I don’t see hearts differently from any other competition.”

“Perhaps I’m not speaking of hearts.”


  • “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)

On Sale
May 3, 2022
Page Count
368 pages
Back Bay Books

Nathan Harris

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. 

Learn more about this author