Trauma, Patriarchy, & Survival: On Sophie Mackintosh’s ‘The Water Cure’

Mackintosh’s skill at depicting how family relationships shift under years of trauma is dynamic and compelling.

Sophie Mackintosh
Novel | 288 Pages | 5.8” x 8.5” | Reviewed: Hardcover
978–0–385–54387–3 | First U.S. Edition | $26.95
Doubleday | New York City | BUY HERE

Image: Doubleday.

I love narratives that have purposeful, carefully placed holes and don’t give the reader all the answers. The stories that linger in my bloodstream the longest are those that are equally as strategic with the details they leave out as the ones they include. Sophie Mackintosh’s debut speculative novel, The Water Cure, is one such book that delights in the mystery of the unknown. Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, and having rightfully achieved great publication success in the U.K., The Water Cure sees its U.S. debut this month. Seductive, powerful, and meticulously unfolding, the novel centers on three girls who live on an island with their parents, far away from the dangers of men on the mainland. When their father, King, suddenly disappears, and a new threat comes to the island in the form of two men and a boy, the girls must use what they’ve been taught to survive and to stay together. Tonally similar to Carmen Maria Machado’s speculative short-story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Mackintosh’s lyrical and beautifully fragmented novel examines survival in a near-future dystopia where patriarchy makes women physically ill.

“There is barbed wire in the forest, deeper than I dare to go. Should anyone arrive on the island, it serves the same purpose as the buoys out in the bay, marking out a clear message. Do not enter. Viewed from another angle, Do not leave.”

In their time on the island, the three sisters, Grace, Lia, and Sky, have been subjected to brutal physical and psychological abuse called “therapies” at the hands of their parents. The systematic torture is intended to help strengthen their bodies and minds against the toxins of the outside world. The girls are brought to the brink of drowning in the swimming pool, suffocation and overheating in the sauna, and risk infection with cuts and burns. Their emotions, as well as their physical selves, are shaped according to King’s vision, a vision that is kept opaque both to the sisters and to the reader. Each year, the family performs a ritual in which they are randomly assigned a relative to love more than the others, leaving the odd one out to suffer in neglect until the next year. The sisters are forced to prove their love for one another by participating in psychological torment, where they can either decide to enact cruelty on each other or to take the pain themselves. A compelling aspect of the novel is that the truth of their lives on the island and the dangers on the mainland is never totally clear; the motivation of the parents and their roles as either saviors or sadists is also suspect, which is acknowledged by Grace, who says she herself is not sure whether her mother does these things out of a misguided love or sheer cruelty. Despite being the protagonists of their own narrative, the sisters are in the dark just like the reader, and they must navigate the terrain of lies and truths to discover the reality behind their existence on the island.

The book alternates between multiple points of view with the title of each section designating the speaker(s). Much of the first section of the book is narrated by the three sisters, Grace, Lia, and Sky, in unison, demonstrating that the sisters are, in many ways, a solid unit. As more and more sections are narrated by Grace and Lia individually, their respective voices slowly become more distinct, and the disparities in their personalities and goals are placed into direct conflict, splintering the family. The vicious dynamic between Grace, who is cold and distant, with Lia, who is starved for touch and affection, is written beautifully with an equal balance of love and hate, envy and fear. Mackintosh’s insightful skill at depicting the way family relationships shift over time, particularly under years of trauma, is an achievement.

“I am not anybody’s loved-most, have not been for some time. I have gone days, weeks, without touch and when that happens I can feel my skin thinning. I have to lay my body against grass and velvet and the corner of the sofa and rub my hands and elbows and thighs against anything until they are raw.”

The biggest appeal to the book’s content is that it can be read multiple ways, both literal and figurative. Some other reviews of this book read the explanation of the toxins as the empirical truth, that women do suffer physically from the germs spread specifically by men. Indeed, the sisters describe the past purpose of their home as a sanatorium where sick women from the mainland arrived to purge themselves of the illness with various rituals, prayers, and cures, indicating that there is a physical component to the threat of a man’s presence. In contrast, I kept the narrative more open for myself, interpreting the broken women who came to the island as survivors of physical and sexual assault. In this reading, which is not the only valid one, the toxins are a metaphor for patriarchy, a metaphor that rings true in our present political climate where a sexual predator and misogynist is president of the United States and women are asked to perform their traumas over and over again within the #MeToo movement simply to be taken seriously. The mystery of The Water Cure is dynamic and compelling, and the reader is propelled through the tight, crisp sections toward its point of unraveling.

“Llew puts the lid of the piano down without comment, pushes the stool back. There is a fluidity to his movements, despite his size, that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing, and I wonder what that must be like, to know that your body is irreproachable.”

Nobody is without blame in The Water Cure, and it’s often unclear if the intentions of the supporting characters are good or self-serving, but clarity comes as the tensions between the sisters and the newcomers heighten. Despite King’s purported wish to remove his daughters from the poisonous influence of male-dominated mainland society, the island itself is a patriarchy where King clearly is king. The girls’ days are structured according to his mandates. When he takes the boat and sails to the mainland for supplies, life stops, and the women must pray and do endless rituals for his safe return upon which they will celebrate and feast at the homecoming of their god. Just like in contemporary society, the influence of patriarchy is insidious, even where we expect to be free of it. In Mackintosh’s dystopian future, patriarchy’s control is even more tangible in the visible damage it does on a woman’s body.

“I invite the confessionals of men. I am not a stranger to them. Absorbing the guilt and the sorrow is something the world expects of women. This is one of the things you taught me about love. ‘All right,’ I tell him, the way I told you.”

Both in terms of content and sentence-level craft, The Water Cure is superb, and well deserving of its place on the Man Booker Prize longlist. Sophie Mackintosh proves herself as a writer with a strong grasp on the macro as well as the micro, developing and maintaining an intriguing, entirely new society while also weaving beautiful, lyrical prose. This debut novel is mysterious and quietly exciting, and the reader will enjoy exploring the richness of its narrative all the way to its shocking conclusion.

JEN CORRIGAN is a Nonfiction Editor for Alternating Current Press and a Staff Book Reviewer for The Coil. A nominee for the 2017 Pushcart Prize, her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, The Tishman Review, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere. Visit her at her website.