The softness of the water – freedom and fear
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In the right hands, historical fiction can often capture the truth of our time with more success than many contemporary attempts. The softness of the water, the debut novel by Nathan Harris, 29, which was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, is a powerful tale of the tensions that arise in the fictional township of Old Ox, Georgia in the aftermath of the American Civil War . .
Harris uses two intertwined stories to explore the violence and compassion that lies within every human heart. One such story concerns two newly freed slaves who find refuge with a white Georgia farmer and his wife, forging an unexpected friendship amid racial rifts. The other, a transgressive romance between two Confederate soldiers.
What happens after a won war, after freedom is granted to people who have spent their entire lives in captivity? Prentiss and Landry, brothers and farm workers, enter with anxiety into freedom: faced with a quiet and dark mystery.
Lost in the woods, starving and penniless, they meet George Walker, an elderly farmer, bewildered by the news of the death of his soldier son, Caleb. The brothers join George and his wife, Isabelle, as free men, working for a living wage on their farm, an act that sparks dismay and then anger among the larger white community of Old Ox.
Part of the strength and instant credibility of this sprawling novel comes from its roots. In an interview with The millions, an online literary magazine, Harris shared his father’s unsuccessful quest to uncover the story of the family’s own ancestors. The lives of newly freed slaves are not well documented, and Harris writes directly about this shortcoming. He imagines both the splendor and comforts of freedom, and the struggles that former slaves such as Prentiss and Landry would have to wage against entrenched sectarianism and racism as a result of a civil war.
The descriptions of hatred and prejudice in the novel seem painfully contemporary. âWe have ways of ourselves. Paths that don’t need to be fixed, âone of the neighbors of George’s Old Ox told him. There will always be ingrained resistance to ideas of freedom and equality, and Harris captures this bubbling resentment with exceptional clarity.
The softness of the water is one of the less inventive or daring novels on Booker’s long list, and Harris brings together too many city characters in the final third of the book, disrupting the deep bond he has forged between the reader and his main characters – Prentiss, Landry, Georges and Isabelle. Meanwhile, the relationship between the two gay soldiers represents little more than a plot point, a spark that sparks manhunts and murders, rampant mobs and a trail of hatred.
But readers will often forget that this is a first novel; one of Harris’s greatest gifts, aside from those beautifully crafted phrases, is his empathy, his ability to slip into the skin of these men and women.
At one point, Isabelle acknowledges that her family and the two brothers are linked by a strange bond: âThe dinner table was now an assortment of damaged bodies gathered together for food. But the promise of a better life hangs in the air. George dreams of his peanut crops, despite impending tragedy, while Isabelle dreams of the land teeming with life and scattered fragments of beauty. For Prentiss, more practical than his brother, freedom means hope: âGood money. A family. A house of his own. It wasn’t just that he could be free, he realized. He could be happy.
The softness of the water may or may not win awards, but in his blunt examination of hate and deep love, Harris will win the hearts of many readers.
The softness of the water by Nathan Harris, Tinder Press Â£ 18.99, 368 pages
Nilanjana Roy is an FT columnist
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