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Booker Longlist 2021 – The Sweetness of Water

Nathan Harris - Sweetness of Water

Book 9 – Read and reviewed by BookWorm, Tracy, Susie & Lisa

Synopsis from Booker Prize website: In the dying days of the American Civil War, newly freed brothers Landry and Prentiss find themselves cast into the world without a penny to their names. Forced to hide out in the woods near their former Georgia plantation, they’re soon discovered by the land’s owner, George Walker, a man still reeling from the loss of his son in the war.

When the brothers begin to live and work on George’s farm, the tentative bonds of trust and union begin to blossom between the strangers. But this sanctuary survives on a knife’s edge, and it isn’t long before the inhabitants of the nearby town of Old Ox react with fury at the alliances being formed only a few miles away.

Conjuring a world fraught with tragedy and violence yet threaded through with hope, The Sweetness of Water is a debut novel unique in its power to move and enthral.

Nathan Harris is a Michener fellow at the University of Texas. He was awarded the Kidd prize, as judged by Anthony Doerr, and was also a finalist for the Tennessee Williams fiction prize. The Sweetness of Water is his debut novel. He lives in Austin, Texas.

BookWorm’s Thoughts: For a debut novel this is powerful stuff to say I enjoyed the story would be wrong as parts are too brutal and tragic for enjoyment but I did appreciate the story. I can see Landry and Prentiss sticking with me for a while yet and I think we could all learn a thing or two from George & Isabelle Walker.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development: 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 17/20

Tracy’s Thoughts: For a debut novel, there is some power in this book. 

Set at the end of the US Civil War, it shows that not all whites in the South were in favor of slavery, and it shows that the underdog has a voice. It addresses racial tension and cultural misunderstandings, homosexuality and the abuse that can occur within a relationship, sorrow and loss, and the confusion of how to start again after over 300 years of a system that has been abolished. That’s a lot to expect from a new author. 

Harris did a nice job of juggling all the above and adding in a plot line- a journey, but not just the journey of characters, but the journey of a country. Waxing poetic here, but this was a lot to tackle. 

There were some stumbles, and I’m not sure this is a Booker book- like many of the books on the longlist, it feels like a reading group book. 

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 3.5/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot: 3/4
Enjoyment: 1.5/2
Total: 15/20

Lisa’s Thoughts: One of my favorite things about this book was the way the different characters were portrayed. No one was simply virtuous, and the people who did the right thing did so for unclear reasons. George, one of the main characters, hires two former slaves — Prentiss and Landry — to work on his land, and pays them decent wages.  He does this after spending much of his life living off the money his father made, and only decides to do so because he needs something to do after being told of his son’s death in the civil war. His son, we can assume, fought for the south. This moral muddiness struck me as very realistic. People are complicated, and we don’t always know why we do the right or wrong thing.  I also liked that I truly could not predict where the plot would go. That said, I found the book to be slow going at times, with a solid but not spectacular or unique style of writing. I guess I was not enthralled.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 3 /4
Overall enjoyment:1 /2
Total: 14/20

Susie’s Thoughts: There’s a lot to like about The Sweetness of Water – beautiful prose, richly drawn characters, and the makings of a powerful tale – and yet it fell short on plot for me and ultimately lacked the punch I had hoped for when I read the synopsis. I listened to the audio, which was very well done, and I wonder if my rating would be lower without the skilled narration. I was also left wondering if we need another story of that time told from the perspective of a white person, or if it would have been more powerful if told through the eyes of Prentiss. Despite all of this I did find it engaging, however I don’t think it’s enough to take the prize this year.

Writing quality: 3.5/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment:1/2
Total: 12.5/20

Rankings so far
Bewilderment 19.25/20
No one is Talking about This 16.83
Second Place 16
A Town Called Solace 15.83
The Sweetness of Water 14.63
The Promise 14.25
A Passage North 13.83
Klara and the Sun 13.3
China Room 13.1

Great debut novel but is it a Booker book? What do you think?

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