The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

Are you sitting comfortably? Alrighty then. Time for some opinions.

I picked up a proof copy of this book back when I worked for Lutyens & Rubinstein because I’d heard it has been shortlisted for the Man Booker. I’d also heard it was about an island full of women who hate men (HELLO).

That’s not an entirely false description, but it’s also not really correct. The Water Cure recounts the story of three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky, who live on an island with their mother and, up until recently, their father who has just died at the opening of the narrative. The girls and their mother live alone on an island away from the rest of the world, where the men are. It’s slowly revealed that the mainland is somehow diseased or dangerous, especially for women – it’s as if they’re allergic to men. Indeed, their home used to be a refuge for ‘damaged women’ who came with them on the island to recover from illnesses or violence, both of which happened as a result of spending too much time in the presence of men. At this point, the main message of the book is MEN. ARE. TRASH.

The parents force the sisters to take part in ‘therapies’ which they are told are ‘for protection’, although it should be noted that the parents seem to be confusing ‘protection’ for ‘torture’. The reader is immediately alerted to the fact that these girls might have been lied to about some aspects of their world when they are subjected to being half drowned, sewn into sacks in saunas until they faint, and are forced to kill small creatures in front of each other on a regular basis – because how can this be good for them? Though we aren’t sure exactly how or why they’re being lied to, a creeping sensation of dread begins to take over.

As the women adjust to life without their father, who was called King – and isn’t that a patriarchal metaphor staring you in the face – HORROR OF HORRORS, two men and a boy wash up on their beach. What happens next is known in the literary world as SHIT HITTING THE FAN (but quietly and creepily, in keeping with the tone of the book).

The story is told from different points of view. Though the majority of the book is written from Lia’s perspective, we also get to hear from Grace and sometimes all three girls together. Interestingly, we never hear from Sky, the youngest of the three. It was an thought-provoking approach and while the reasons behind hearing from both Grace and Lia become clearer as the novel progresses, I’m not sure what the collective sections added to the story. It could be a sense of the girls’ togetherness and then a violent splitting apart and then a reunison*, but that feels a bit too much like a GCSE English Literature answer for me to lend it much weight.

*That’s not a word, is it? It should be.

I can imagine the book being a common choice for feminist book clubs across the country as there is certainly a lot to discuss. Words that have been thrown around to describe the novel include ‘dark’, ‘powerful’, and ‘unsettling’ and I agree with all of those assessments. Even so, I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book exactly – it’s strange and violent and a bit sparse on some details. There’s a lot of talk of strength and weakness, particularly of bodies and emotions, and I especially liked Mackintosh’s descriptions of love – how the girls have been taught that love is a limited commodity, a concept that they seem to subscribe to to some extent, despite their contradictory conviction that they love their sisters immeasurably and unconditionally. The links drawn between love, sex, hatred and cruelty were also very moving.

For the first three quarters of this book, I felt like I didn’t quite get it, like the author was desperately hinting at something but I just couldn’t quite understand what. To me, it really felt like the book was a metaphor for something more than just the danger women face in the modern world, but I couldn’t quite work out what – and then all of a sudden, Mackintosh gives you all the answers in the last quarter of the book, almost like she’s saying – haven’t you got it yet, you idiot? Here’s what I was trying to tell you the whole time.

There’s an oddly oppressive feel to The Water Cure; a sense of claustrophobia and a bizarre juxtaposition of the descriptions of the stiflingly hot world they live in and the goosebumps that appeared on my arms as I was reading. There is something about the writing that, despite its descriptions of sweat and heat, makes you feel cold to the bone.

Or maybe I just need to turn on my heating. I don’t know.

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