An entire day had passed since George Walker had spoken to his wife.
As so often happens when reading, one book reminds you of another. A character, a plot development, a thing said or done becomes linked in your mind to something else, purely by the serendipity of happenchance. In the early days of my time with Nathan Harris’ utterly compelling, The Sweetness of Water, I was preparing my Robert Frost post. A post where I revisited the six poems that B24 studied during his HSC year.
In the seven intervening years, I had completely forgotten the poem, Home Burial (1914). It is an incredibly sad poem about the death of a child, made doubly sad by the parent’s inability to console each other or accept that the other is grieving in a way different to the other. The poem basically becomes a battle of wills.
In The Sweetness of Water, we see two more parents ripped asunder by their grief. George had not spoken to his wife for a whole day, for upon hearing the news that his son had died somewhere on the battlefields of the South, he had taken off into the woods to come to terms with his loss. A loss so deep, he could not find the words to speak it.
The next morning he finally tells his wife Isabelle. Her response is similar. She retreats to their son’s bedroom and locks the door. The silence coming from Caleb’s room is unnerving and loaded with accusation. George feels guilt for not telling her the news sooner, but isn’t sure if her reaction is anger at his delay or purely overwhelming grief.
he had no means to recognize what Isabelle might require of him – the necessities of her grief….he was not truly capable of consoling Isabelle, as they both knew….no matter how unbearable he found it to wallow in his wife’s misery, he knew it was the better option than making contact with his own grief.
At one point, George bemoans the fact that nothing he says will be right. Though sincere, his words will be rejected and maligned. I was instantly reminded of the lines from the poem,
‘My words are nearly always an offense. I don’t know how to speak of anything So as to please you. But I might be taught I should suppose.'
The distance that develops at this time between George and Isabelle, becomes hard to dislodge. Despite changing circumstances, happier times, they find it difficult to return to their old companionship and their old ways. As George says, “what we’ve been through has changed me. Not all of me, but a part. Just as it’s changed you.” The difference being, that, yes, it did change Isabelle, but it changed ALL of her.
And curiously, rather like so many of Robert Frost’s poems, George finds consolation and purpose in work. For the first time in his life, he is physically working the land. This work proves cathartic, and as he cuts down one tree in particular, he is filled with a great release as if “reversing years of inaction, of squandered land and squandered relationships.”
However, The Sweetness of Water is not just the story of George and Isabelle.
The other half of the story involves two brothers, Prentiss and Landry. George discovers them living in the woods adjoining his farm. They are freed slaves, made so thanks to the recent Emancipation Proclamation. Through their eyes we see the emerging settlements growing up around the edge of Old Ox, as more and more freed slaves came together for support, feeling lost and unsure about what to do with this so called newfound freedom. A freedom, that for all intents and purposes, existed in name only.
George invites the brothers to help him work on the farm, recognising that they have knowledge and farming skills that he does not. He is prepared to pay “the same I’d pay any other man for the same job.” They eventually agree.
As you might suspect, though, the rest of the Old Ox town folk do not take kindly to this arrangement. This is where things start to get messy. Or more accurately, disturbing and distressing.
A violent, gruesome event changes absolutely everything for everyone involved. For a whole day I had to put this unputdownable book down, to catch my breath.
At this point I had no idea how I was going to finish this post without giving everything away. Until Bill @The Australian Legend published his Cosmo Cosmolino Revisited post. He noted that in Reading Like an Australian Writer, Tegan Bennett Daylight writes (in reference to Helen Garner’s writing) that,
A great novel unsettles, then settles – it causes disorder, and then order.
That’s what The Sweetness of Water did for me. It upset me and disturbed me. Examples of prejudice, injustice and hypocrisy were ubiquitous and unrelenting, but it also kept me enthralled the entire time. The story felt personal and universal, it contained intimate daily details alongside the political, it was a story about our shared humanity and our many flaws. It was beautifully written, full of poetic language and wonderful turns of phrase.
Then I found myself inside another muddle. I made the mistake of reading some of the reviews online. I went from being thoroughly engaged and engrossed by The Sweetness of Water, to doubting myself for doing so.
Some reviewers were concerned that a white perspective was included, that it should have been all black, but I found it refreshing to see a black man writing about white folk after centuries of the opposite. Yes, this particular white family were depicted as being the virtuous white family, but they were surrounded by a whole town, who were not. Yet, even that is not completely accurate. As in real life, the characters displayed varying degrees of prejudice and mercy, inconsistencies, false heroics as well as misguided, but genuine concern. The Walker’s and the brothers, both had to deal with the consequences of their new relationship. This was their story; not the story of Old Ox or the black settlement.
That would have been a different beast altogether. One worth exploring, but it seems strange for reviewers to lament all the things this book was not, or left out, of failed to look at, instead of focusing on what it actually is. Isn’t that another white misconception? That somehow Black or Indigenous writers should speak with one homogenous voice? That all the flash points should be ticked off and all the issues addressed?
The Sweetness of Water is an intimate portrayal of the backgrounds and previous experiences of the main characters, that allows us to see how it would be possible for an interracial friendship to evolve in the first place. It is specific, not epic. It is mesmerising story-telling, not a history text book.
Harris’ story is about all the things that can break us, and the many ways we heal ourselves. From the horror, the grief and the loss, meaningful connections can still be made. Small joys can be felt even in the harshest existence. Hope can blossom even in the middle of misery.
Sometimes hope is enough.
And during these lockdown days, full of doom and gloom and endless stats about delta variants and long covid, it is perhaps that idea of hope that I clung to as I read The Sweetness of Water.
- Longlisted Booker Prize 2021
- Barack Obama’s Summer Reading List 2021
- Book 19 of 20 Books of
Title: The Sweetness of Water Author: Nathan Harris ISBN: 9781472274380 Imprint: Tinder Press Published: 15 June 2021 Format: Paperback
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.