The Water Cure: A Novel by Sophie Mackintosh

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*LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE*

Then we are all just useless there on the lawn, already painfully overgrown, waiting for Mother to find us.

Just what is so terrible out there beyond the territory (island) that King keeps his daughters Grace, Lia, and Sky along with their mother under protection? What sort of men are beyond the waters, dangerous enough that it requires barbed wire? Just what has soured the mainland? Will we ever know?

The girls are cleansed through strange rituals, therapies to cleanse them from the world’s rot, but there is no cleansing for when in mourning. Their father disappeared, and now it is just the women. Is he dead? Missing? What will they do without King, father, protector? What will happen when the threat arrives, in the form of strangers, men?

We know once there were women who sought shelter, but from what? The Water Cure is beautiful and frustrating at the same time. I kept wondering, has the world gone to hell or is this just some brainwashed family, and the men that arrive don’t really confirm much about the world out there. There is a line, “The real trick is how and why we continue surviving at all”, that speaks volumes because really what sort of life do they have? Sister’s only for company, clueless about the world beyond, controlling their personal energies (feelings) in ways the toxic world didn’t ever prepare for, leading to destruction. What are these therapies, to us laughable at best, which lends more to the ‘these women are brainwashed’ theory. “In the heady days without our father, we let our bodies sprawl.” Suddenly their days and bodily toxins are less measured with King gone, their mother swears daughters are ‘hardwired for betrayal’, again making me question King and their mother. Okay, has there been some sort of epidemic?  King travels to the mainland for meager supplies, certainly if other women came to the island something is wrong on the mainland, right?

Strong feelings “weaken you”, and women are full of them. The other women who came, got sicker or better and left. Damaged women, drifting through the girls lives by boat, one even escaping as the girls themselves would if they chose to. But, why would anyone need to escape a place meant to save, a place she chose to come to? A ‘promised place’ according to her mother and King. People don’t run from a healthy world, right? As a reader it’s so hard to take the ‘preparations’ seriously. All one keeps thinking is, ‘this is one deluded couple.’ But the women ‘recoiled’ when they first saw King, so maybe there is some meat to the whole ‘world gone awry’ business. Are the men this bad or is King just feeding his girls a diet of fears to keep them from growing away, becoming women? Better to control their bodies, desires, tame their sexuality, which is why men and the mainland are such a threat. Let’s say the world is normal, much like our own, let’s face it there are enough horrors acted upon women that make them recoil too, it doesn’t require a natural disaster, just a bad man.

A lot of time is spent telling us feelings are bad, that “trauma” is a toxin, well by that token any ‘mainland’ is ruinous, dangerous, and toxic  therefore there is no need for an apocalypse. “Without our father, it is very hard not to think about things going wrong.” Obviously they are all ill prepared anyway, women alone on an island, surely King had to know a time would come when he couldn’t protect them anymore? Safety in numbers, and if family is all that is true and good, shouldn’t they want to create their own families too at some point? Parents won’t live forever. Not much preparing there, eh?

When the men come and emotions catch fire, the sisters come apart. Desire can’t be contained anymore than nature can, because we are nature too. Maybe men are the toxins, with their pulling and pushing, wanting and discarding when boredom arrives. “She was just like every other woman.  Eager and tender-hearted.” Girls, easily manipulated with all their wants, desires, their treacherous toxic ‘personal energies’ always in excess with girls, women. Women, trapped forever “absorbing the guilt and sorrows “ of the world. Maybe women are islands themselves. I know my review is disjointed, but that is exactly my feeling after reading the novel. I don’t trust it and yet I can dig some meaning here and there. It comes off as a sly feminist work.

Of the men, James has some insight to share about the world that is and isn’t dangerous for women, not much different from our own, really. There are lies, so many lies and maybe a life that could be ‘open’ to the girls beyond the island. I can’t divulge much more because it would ruin the story. I enjoyed the writing, it was a uniquely strange novel but I was also irritated without solid answers. No, I don’t need all my stories with happy endings, or tidy explanations but sometimes, with some stories there is a build-up and you expect something to sink your teeth into. The ending here ends up being as dreamy and open-ended as the entire novel. I am still rubbing my eyes in confusion, what was that all about in the end? I both know and don’t know, and maybe that is the intention, to be as unsure as Grace, Lia and Sky.

Publication Date in US: January 8, 2019

DoubleDay Books

 

 

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