Longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021. Conjuring a world fraught with tragedy and violence yet threaded through with hope, Nathan Harris’ debut novel is enthralling and deeply moving.

In the dying days of the American Civil War, newly freed brothers Landry and Prentiss are cast penniless into the world. Hiding out in woods, they’re discovered by the land’s owner, George Walker, a man still reeling from the loss of his son in the war. The brothers begin to work on his farm, and tentative bonds of trust begin to blossom. But this sanctuary survives on a knife’s edge. It isn’t long before the inhabitants of the nearby town of Old Ox react with fury at the alliances being formed.

The 2021 Booker Prize
Published by
Tinder Press
Publication date

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Nathan Harris

Nathan Harris

About the Author

Nathan Harris was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021. He is a Michener fellow at the University of Texas. The Sweetness of Water is his debut novel.
More about Nathan Harris

Nathan Harris on The Sweetness of Water

‘An author spends years working in private hoping that his or her novel might, one day, simply reach an audience. To not only accomplish that, but to also have so many readers share their appreciation of my work, and then for the Booker committee to acknowledge me with this honor… It’s more than I ever hoped for.’

Read the full interview here

‘Inspiration is a strange thing and comes from so many places of influence. For one, I love historical fiction as a reader. Some of my favorite novels (The Known World, Good Lord Bird, Cold Mountain), are also based during or around the Civil War. Beyond that, though, I was really intrigued by the period of time immediately following the war’s end. Where did freed people wish to go? What were their desires? I wanted to explore that moment in time, so I took it upon myself to inhabit those characters, and my novel came from that.’

Read the interview here

You worry about whether you’re getting the story down properly. You anguish over the quality of the prose

What the judges said

‘This debut novel astonished us as much for its wise, lyrical voice as for its dense realisation of a fictional small town in the American South at a rarely written about moment… 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.’

What the critics said

Carole V. Bell, NPR

The Sweetness of Water left a lasting and multifaceted impression: It’s warm and absorbing, thought provoking and humane. But ultimately uneven in its ideas – a book whose resonance ever so slightly exceeds its art.’

Nilanjana Roy, Financial Times

‘In the right hands, historical fiction can often capture the truth of our own times more successfully than many contemporary attempts… 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… in his unsparing examination of both hatred and deep love, Harris will win over the hearts of many readers.’

Alex Preston, Observer

The Sweetness of Water is 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. In presenting two narratives largely overlooked in traditional renderings of the war, Harris breathes new life into a period of history whose stories have grown stale with overtelling.’

Ron Charles, Washington Post

‘That this powerful book is Nathan 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 history with extraordinary sensitivity to the range of responses from Black and White Americans contending with a revolutionary ideal of personhood… . Harris stacks the timbers of this plot deliberately, and the moment a spark alights, the whole structure begins to burn hot. If this is an era - and a genre - that has no room for encouragement, The Sweetness of Water is finally willing to carve out a little oasis of hope.’

Oprah Winfrey, Associated Press

‘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.’

The Sweetness of Water

Nathan Harris makes those extraordinary, still contested times comprehensible through an immersive, incredibly humane storytelling about the lives of ordinary people

Listen to an extract from The Sweetness of Water

William DeMeritt brings the audiobook of The Sweetness of Water to life.

Headline Books · THE SWEETNESS OF WATER by Nathan Harris, read by William DeMeritt - audiobook extract
Cover for The Sweetness of Water on an orange-coloured background.

Nathan Harris and Oprah in conversation

The Sweetness of Water was chosen as the 91st pick for Oprah’s Book Club.

Speaking about choosing the novel, Oprah said: ‘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.’

As part of the book’s selection, Oprah met Nathan Harris and his father for lunch. Watch their conversation here.


Still from video of Oprah, Nathan Harris and Harris' father sitting at a table laid with flowers.