The Sweetness Of Water begins with wealthy landowner George Walker walking in the woods on his property near the fictional Georgian town of Old Ox. These woodland jaunts are regular recreation for him, stalking a black, hairy beast that sometimes walks on two legs, sometimes on four, a beast he and his father have been after since childhood. But in the woods he finds something else, two newly freed brothers from the property next door, the younger Prentiss, and the giant, mute Landry who delights in the small moments of beauty among cruelty, the sweetness of water of the title. Although content for the moment in their freedom in the woods, George soon invites them to work on his land, which has until now lain fallow.
It’s only weeks since the Civil War ended, and Union soldiers occupy the town to keep the peace. George and his wife Isabelle grieve for their son Caleb, reported dead after deserting the Confederate army. Grief hangs heavily over the early chapters of this book, a kind of stillness and gathering that soon gives way to a more action-packed, propulsive story than you might first imagine, as Prentiss, Landry and the Walkers come under threat from Old Ox’s disgruntled former slavers. It is a boldly sentimental novel, spending most of its time in its characters’ emotional worlds. At its best, it works magnificently, and I was deeply moved by the trials of many of the characters. Here, for instance, is a simple dinner scene between George and Isabelle:
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.
With its feel for emotion, it reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro, or, truly, Jane Austen. This is heart and emotional intelligence you can’t fake.
Harris is at pains to create morally complex characters, demanding empathy for the least empathetic. The neighbour who enslaved Prentiss and Landry is obviously capable of great evil, but Harris portrays him mainly as simple. A sheriff’s deputy carries out terrible orders, but is severely affected by PTSD from the war. The novel’s ultimate antagonist, the town’s richest landowner, never quite becomes an outright psychopath. Often this gesturing to the complicatedness of human nature serves the story well. At other times, it makes characters hard to pin down, particularly George who is known for both his silence and his prattling on, his cowardice and his strength, leading to some jarring shifts in behaviour.
The Sweetness Of Water is a post-war novel, driven by the questions of how to rebuild a broken society. Prentiss and Landry struggle to come out from the shackles of slavery, at times finding freedom almost as much a burden. Harris is attentive to the intersections of race and class in this world. George inherited his wealth from his father, and has never worked his property. He’s also a northerner, and his outsider status leads him to identify with the formerly enslaved. The plot hinges on an illicit homosexual (and, it must be said, quite erotic) affair, suggesting the ruin that can come from all types of bigotry, and also the evil that white gays can wreak.
The story is simply told, casually evoking the Civil War era without forcing it with too many historical details or arcane dialogue. Harris writes particularly wonderfully about the environment, evoking the great wildwoods of America that would soon be cut down and fragmented. There’s a fleeting reference to pigeons so numerous and docile that they could be clubbed from their perches, suggesting the fate of the Passenger Pigeon. It was a terrible time in many respects, but there’s a nostalgia that runs through The Sweetness Of Water, a longing for simpler times when the possibilities of the future seemed endless.
Gay rating: 4/5 for gay or bisexual characters and explicit gay sex.