A lot of reviewers and bloggers have been discussing their interest of late in Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel, The Water Cure, but I have yet to see a dedicated full-length review of the novel. Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, and with an intriguing plot, I thought that I would create such a review after reading it. Described as ‘hypnotic and compulsive… a fever dream, a blazing vision of suffering, sisterhood and transformation’, I was keen to get to it.
The dystopian world in which The Water Cure takes place is ‘very close to our own: where women are not safe in their bodies, where desperate measures are required to raise a daughter.’ The focus of the novel is a group of three sisters, Grace, Lia, and Sky, who have been exiled to an isolated island with their father, whom they know as King, and their volatile mother. They are told that the rest of the world is toxic, and has the power to kill them. Lia reflects, of this, ‘It was a wonder that there were still safe places, islands like ours where woman can be healthful and whole.’ The girls are forbidden from mixing with men, and their only interaction with those who have experienced the outside world is through a series of troubled women who come to stay for brief periods in their home.
The first piece of narrative, which is told from the perspective of all three girls, discusses the death of their father: ‘Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing. It’s wrong to say that we don’t notice. We are just absorbed in ourselves, that afternoon when he dies.’ At first, they believe that he has just gone to the mainland for a few days, and then realise that he is missing. At this point, they search the house and grounds, and discover that one of their boats has disappeared too. The girls consider the following: ‘For a moment we think he has gone for supplies, but then we remember he was not wearing the protective white suit, we did not do the leaving ceremony, and we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity. And Mother falls to her knees.’ Their father’s passing is a somewhat meandering, but central theme.
The crux of the novel comes when a group of three men are washed up on the beach near the girls’ home, ‘their gazes hungry and insistent, trailing desire and destruction in their wake’, and the disappearance of their mother. A lot of the things which the girls are subjected to, both before and after this point, are cruel and inhumane, and Mackintosh writes of them with a stark frankness. They are forbidden from showing any emotion: ‘We have never been permitted to cry because it makes our energies suffocating. Crying lays you low and vulnerable, racks your body. If water is the cure for what ails us, the water that comes from our own faces and hearts is the wrong sort.’
The girls speak as a collective from time to time, but the whole is largely told from the perspective of Lia, the second sister, and the most sensitive. She takes older sister, Grace, as her central focus at many points in the novel, and describes the effects which the sisters have upon one another, and the contact which she is so desperate for: ‘Often Grace is repelled by me. I don’t have the luxury of being repelled by her, even when her breath is sour and a gentle scum of dirt clings to her ankles. I take whatever contact I can get. Sometimes I harvest the hair from her brush and hide it under my pillow, when things get very bad.’
As the youngest sister by some margin, Sky’s feelings and thoughts are often hidden. At no point does she narrate any of the story, save for the collective sections, when it is impossible to separate the voices of the girls. Later parts of the novel are narrated by Grace, and whilst her outlook on life and love is different to Lia’s, their voices did not feel different enough. For me, this exacerbated that the characters were not drawn realistically enough for me to invest in, and sympathise with, them. Another problem which I had was that I believed the sisters to be far younger than they were later revealed to be, due to their naivety and childishness.
In The Water Cure, Mackintosh has looked at structures of power, and patriarchal hierarchies. Whilst the set-up of the novel intrigued me, and I did find elements of it interesting, the whole felt rather too vague to be believable. At no point are we made aware of why the outside world is perceived to be so toxic, and I did not feel as though the plot came together quite as well as it could have done. The ending felt a little rushed, and much of the middle section was a little meandering. I did not feel as though the blurred ambiguities of the novel suited the plot; I would have far preferred things to be spelled out at some point, to give some explanation for some of the elements which were not fully explored. The Water Cure has an interesting concept, but a somewhat problematic execution, and at no point did I feel fully immersed in the story.