cover image The Sweetness of Water

The Sweetness of Water

Nathan Harris. Little, Brown, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-316-46127-6

Harris’s ambitious debut explores the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation in rural Georgia. In the small town of Old Ox, eccentric George Walker, whose land borders a plantation, is grieving for the son he believes to have been killed in battle when he meets up with two young brothers who until recently had been enslaved at the house next door. Talkative Prentiss and his silent brother Landry have been attempting to live off the land while figuring out their next move, and they accept George’s offer of work converting his land to a peanut farm. When George’s son, Caleb, returns, the balance in the household is upset, and violence ensues after Landry is caught witnessing a secret sexual rendezvous between Caleb and sadistic August Webler, heir to one of the richest families in the county. Harris peoples the small community with well-developed characters, including George’s quietly determined wife, Isabelle, and a mixed-race prostitute with whom George shares the secrets he can’t confide to Isabelle. Harris writes in intelligent, down-to-earth prose and shows a keen understanding of his characters, and while the plot leads to several tragic events, there’s a tinge of hope at the end. This character study is credible and deeply moving. Agent: Emily Forland, Brandt & Hochman. (June)