Hardcover, 288 pagesExpected publication: January 8th 2019 by Doubleday (first published May 2018)
The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Virgin Suicides in this dystopic feminist revenge fantasy about three sisters on an isolated island, raised to fear men
King has tenderly staked out a territory for his wife and three daughters, Grace, Lia, and Sky. He has lain the barbed wire; he has anchored the buoys in the water; he has marked out a clear message: Do not enter. Or viewed from another angle: Not safe to leave. Here women are protected from the chaos and violence of men on the mainland. The cult-like rituals and therapies they endure fortify them from the spreading toxicity of a degrading world.
But when their father, the only man they’ve ever seen, disappears, they retreat further inward until the day three strange men wash ashore. Over the span of one blistering hot week, a psychological cat-and-mouse game plays out. Sexual tensions and sibling rivalries flare as the sisters confront the amorphous threat the strangers represent. Can they survive the men?
A haunting, riveting debut about the capacity for violence and the potency of female desire, The Water Cure both devastates and astonishes as it reflects our own world back at us.
Sudden love, when gifted to a habitually unloved person, can induce nausea. It can become a thing you would claw and debase yourself for. It is necessary to wean yourself onto it, small portions.
Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel, The Water Cure, is the story of three sisters living an occult existence on an island off “the mainland” one fateful summer when they have their first experience with men other than their father.
Yep, that pretty much sums this one up. Grace, Lia and Sky have been raised on an island away from civilization for their entire lives. (view spoiler) Grace is pregnant, though she’s only ever even seen one man her entire life, her father. Lia is in the middle of a summer without love; the summer that the men arrive, she’s been chosen in one of the family’s rituals to be the person who goes without love until names are picked out of the bag again. Sky is childlike and innocent, wholly dependent on their family unit and unwilling to stray from its teachings. So, when King, their father dies, and the mother and three daughters are left alone on the island, anything can happen.
There are two aesthetic items that really stood out to me about this book: the title, which is perfectly harmonious with the content, and the beautiful imagery of the cover, which accurately ties it all together. Both of these are fantastic representations of the bedrock of this book.
Admittedly, The Water Cure started out rough, and I was tempted to put it down. Part one is a series of vignettes—short, broken glimpses into their world that failed to satisfy. There was not enough to fully hold on to. I found the first part of this three-part the novel to be yet another example of a narrative full of frilly words and curlicue phrases that all amounted to nothing—exposition that skirted the truth of their reality, trying to veil it or twirl around it in a way that was annoyingly (and often confusingly) evasive. I wished—no YEARNED—for Mackintosh to write head on instead of in a mass of purple prose nothingness.
Luckily, I was offered some reprieve in Part Two, where the narrative style switches up a bit, though it never wanders too far from its narrative foundation of swirly prose writing.
ENTER JAMES, LLEW AND GWIL.
James and Llew are brothers who wash up on shore with Llew’s young son, Gwil. They seek refuge until rescuers come to bring them home from the island, and they endure extreme measures on the part of the girls’ mother who has not been around men, other than her now-deceased husband, in years. Once she deems them safe enough to inhabit their land until they are rescued, this novel starts to unwind and make a little more sense.
Part two centers around Lia, the middle daughter who cuts her thighs to feel something, the sister who has not been assigned love in one of their ritualistic ceremonies—
‘Hurt Grace, or Sky will have to…’ You know I have no choice…She showed no reaction at first, but by the end she was biting viciously through the cloth. I knew it was involuntary…She let out a high noise from between her teeth, a constant pitch, like a stinging insect. It was unbearable.
—It is, in part, this lack of love that drives her into the arms of Llew. But Lia has no romantic experience with men. Imagine the playfulness, the flirtation, the mixed signals and the desire that we’ve all experienced in our youths; now imagine that happening in an occult setting where men are the enemy to a girl who is starved of love. You can see how this would be a recipe for insert any number of words here.
James finds me crying in the garden, where I thought nobody would look. Somehow I am a child again and nobody wants to go near me, nobody can cope with how badly I want to be held, or touched, or listened to, and there is nothing I can ever do about it.
Each chapter in part two starts with an excerpt, presumably from an entry in the Welcome Book left behind by a woman who has sought out their occult home in search of refuge from the destruction of men in the past. The thing is, without context—and with the author still clinging to the evasive narrative techniques of part one—a lot of the excerpts made little sense to me and failed to move the story forward in any meaningful way, not even by adding atmosphere. Also, this novel likely would have been better off written completely in 3rd person. Lia’s chapters bothered me, because she speaks in first person using words like “surreptitiously,” though there’s never a word written about these girls, living isolated from all other civilization aside from their five-person family and the occasional female traveler, ever going to school. They learned to read on their own from books lying around the house that were eventually taken away before the third sister could even learn to read, so that just came off as weird and inaccurate.
The blurb praises The Water Cure as The Handmaid’s Talemeets The Virgin Suicides. Ummmm, The Handmaid’s Tale, not so much. The Virgin Suicides, maybeeeeee. Really, it reminded me of Gather the Daughters , a novel I THOROUGHLY enjoyed, meets Lord of the Flies. If that description appeals to you, you’ll definitely want to pick up Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure. (I also didn’t find this book to be “dystopic” since it’s not really set post-end of the world. The family is just self-isolated.) While I was put off by the evasiveness of the first part of the novel, the narrative came together much better as the novel progressed. It was a quick read that I gobbled up in 24 hours, and it managed to put its own spin on a narrative that’s been done before. For that, I thought it fitting to give this book 3.5 stars rounded up to 4. ****
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Sophie Mackintosh won the 2016 White Review Short Story Prize and the 2016 Virago/Stylist Short Story competition, and has been published in Granta magazine and TANK magazine among others. The Water Cure is her first novel.