The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

This is another one of the those outstanding books that takes a global injustice and condenses it down to lives of a handful of people.

The American Civil War has ended, the Confederacy is in ruins, and the slaves are free. They have no homes, no livelihoods and no land. Worse, they’re now facing the wrath of Southerners who are looking to vent their shame and frustration on the people with less power than themselves … Negroes.

The story is about two brothers: Landry and Prentiss – born into slavery and now emancipated, they leave the plantation they’ve known their whole lives to search for a place of their own and their mother, sold and taken away from them when they were still children.

They don’t get very far; striking an agreement with an elderly landowner – who seems incredibly estranged from his wife, his son, and life in general – to help him to cultivate what little land he has left in return for a fair wage to help carry them further on their journey. As one would expect, the spectre of racism and injustice is never far behind …

I don’t want to say too much, other than it’s an incredible book. Beautifully written, with a surprisingly delicately poetic touch for such a harrowing story. The characters are drawn with such depth and clarity that they pretty much leap from the page, and continue to grow and develop in your head: definitely one of the those books that still acts out in your imagination, even during those rare moments when you’re not reading it. Brilliantly done.

Likewise, the scene setting, the dips into the past, the smooth transitions from one viewpoint to the next . . . I can’t fault it really.

Sometimes brutal, always beautiful, The Sweetness of Water is a masterclass in historical literary fiction. Put it on your list.

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