The Water Cure
Every once in a while a book comes along that is so powerful, so replete with well-sculpted prose and telling such an urgent narrative that I find it impossible to put down. Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel is just such a book. I want everyone to read it, especially every woman, every writer. The novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the dust jacket features a quote (via Twitter) from Margaret Atwood, “A gripping, sinister fable!” And yes, this novel is a fable—although a dark and terrible dystopian one. As readers, we never really know what is “real” and what is simply a part of the larger fiction created by two people—a man who calls himself “King” and his partner known only as “Mother,” ostensibly parents of three young women. There are layers on layers of fiction here: the narrative is broken up into short sections told by the three young women: Grace, Lia, and Sky. For these women, the world outside the “island” where they live exists only as King and Mother describe it, a “toxin-filled” place that they must protect against through terrible rituals and, eventually, violence.
With brutal allegory, Mackintosh shows us that it’s dangerous to be a woman, a female body, in both our world and the world of the novel. Although some critics have defined “King” as sharing elements with King Lear and his tale, I would argue that Mackintosh instead is more interested in showing how patriarchal society creates a world where to be female is to be in mortal danger. For King and, by extension, Mother, the only safe place for women is in his house on his island and the only way his women can remain safe is through practicing violent rituals on themselves and each other that speak more of his need to control the female body and female emotions than any reality. Mackintosh is never heavy-handed in her fable, instead the story unfolds slowly through the voices of the three sisters together (in chapters titled simply “grace, lia, sky”) and separate narratives told by Grace and Lia. Sky, as youngest, is given a voice only in concert with her two sisters.
The book opens with the sentence, “Once we had a father, but our father dies without us noticing.” This sentence is immediately contradicted and so sets the tone for the entire novel: how do we find the truth of a story if the tellers are unreliable, if reality itself cannot be clearly defined? A masterful writer, Mackintosh draws the reader in incredibly skillfully. Generally when I’m reading, I line edit in my head as I go but Mackintosh’s prose is so clear, so perfect that for once, I could just relax and read. From her opening sentence, I was drawn into the narrative and, while there are revelatory moments that are truly shocking that give the novel at times a thriller-like tone, I became less interested in the “truth” of this story than in the shape and sound and feel of it. These women are fascinating and the patterns of their language and ways of living in the world are so compelling that truth becomes a thing apart, and just as their lives have been warped, forced into King and Mother’s strange precepts that we, as readers, know are wrong—it becomes impossible not to be drowned in the power of their voices.
The “cures,” devised by King and expanded on by Mother, include both emotional and physical violence enacted on and by their daughters. These cures are supposed to cleanse the women of “toxins” from the outside world, and the expression of emotions and desire. In Lia’s words, “We have never been permitted to cry because it makes our energies suffocating … If water is the cure for what ails us, the water that comes from our own faces and hearts is the wrong sort.” Throughout the novel are images of women’s bodies being purged, nearly suffocated, and nearly drowned. The three sisters find comfort in the horror of their own abuse as they have been brought up to believe that King will save them from the dangers of the outside world.
At first King has acolytes in his utopia: women who come from the mainland for his cures to help them purge the violence done to them by men and society at large. Eventually there are no more women, but a journal of their time on the island remains and appears in short excerpts in the third section of the book. This journal contains a few lines from each of the women visitors explaining why they had come to the island. These small sections are brief narratives of the outside world, showing the violence done to women that brought them to King’s house and a hoped for cure while also holding small explosions that serve Mackintosh’s larger allegory of the violence done to women in our world: “I didn’t know that there was no longer any need for the men to hold their bodies in check or to carry on the lie that we mattered.” With King gone, Mother attempts to continue his practices, but when three men wash up on the beach below the house, she loses her grip on her daughters. Grace is already pregnant when the men arrive and, despite the tale that the sea gave her a baby, the only possible father is King. When Grace loses the baby, Lia is tasked with getting rid of the body. Lia is the sole narrator of the middle section of the book, “The Men,” and it is through her troubled and emotionally rent perspective that we learn about the disappearance of Mother and the collapse of King’s fable. Lia has been made “least loved” in the family when she is left out of a ritual where family members are assigned a person to “love best.” When the men arrive on the island Lia rebels against King’s teachings; she is confronted with her physical desire for one of the men and, when he treats her badly, all hell breaks loose. In Lia’s words, “Emergency has always been with us; if not present emergency then always the idea that it is coming…here, finally, is the emergency we have been waiting for our whole lives.” King has trained his daughters to defend themselves against men and so, “We gather lengths of muslin and our knives and we move down to the shore while the men are still weak.” When Mother disappears, the men move themselves into the house, taking over. The pressure builds as the weather grows still and hot, the house filled with heat and rising emotions. Grace and Sky cut off each other’s long hair, paint each other’s toenails, and bond against Lia who has betrayed the family by giving in to her desire.
By the end of the novel, borders have been breached and the world of the island collapses. Lia describes the blue-limbed human bodies that float in the sea as “ghosts,” feeling a “new wrongness in the air between us that threatens to engulf everything.” Grace carries the bulk of the narrative for the final section, “Sisters.” Her voice is singularly powerful and exacting. She addresses King throughout as “you” and is unwavering in her honesty. She is composing a “eulogy to our world” as the various strands of narrative come to conclusion and the tension shifts to direct action and revelatory violence.
Grace tells us she has learned that “loss is a thing that builds around you. That what feels like safety is often just absence of current harm, and these two things are not the same.” As she uncovers lie after lie, Grace discovers a strength within herself and her sisters that does not depend on King or Mother or “the Men,” but instead a new ruthlessness where “I am not anybody’s weapon but my own.” In a world that is shaped by men and made toxic to women, where to live as female is to be always in danger of violence, female anger becomes a survival mechanism. This novel is full of the rage of women who have been betrayed and abused, made to feel shame that is not deserved and, as Grace states near the end of the novel, “The anger of the women seemed a force from outside them. It was an anger that welled up deep in their chests. Without it, they would not have been able to survive. I personally have always welcomed it. The moments of power. The burning in my stomach. Be angry.”