• nancydawkins

The Water Cure - Sophie Mackintosh

Since around May last year I slowly but surely developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) which left me unable to read, a huge blow for someone like myself who eats books like air, and who delves into delicious novels to escape the stress of the real world. I gave myself the time to rest, not pushing myself to read for fear of plunging into exhaustion. But when The New Year came around I grasped this symbolic fresh start and allowed myself to try. Breaking myself in, not quite gently, but with the motivation I needed, I decided to begin with a book I had been really looking forward to reading. After seeing the cover and a blurb online, I had been so excited by the release of Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure that I bought it as soon as it came out in hard back, even though I knew I was not well enough to read it. Oh, what a book to begin with! Easily digestible, with short chapters that push you on and on, I read it in less than a week. It’s the kind of book that before I got ill I would have sat and read in a day, so engrossed that the world could have collapsed around me and I wouldn’t have noticed.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh: 5/5

Isolated from society on an island, the three sisters of Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure fear the mainland, and the men who live there carrying toxins deadly to women. Brought up on abusive “treatments” created by their parents to immunise them from the toxicity and violence of men, and the constant reminder that their emotions make them vulnerable and their bodies make them weak; Grace, Lia and Sky live a life of shame, repentance, and repression. After the disappearance of their father and patriarch - King, the women are left alone, unaided by the guidance of man, yet still bound by his rules and punishments, sentenced by their mother and their own internalised guilt and fear. When three men wash up on the shore their fears are challenged; their protection knocked down, forcing them to confront love, jealousy, and their own concepts of womanhood in new and unfamiliar ways.

The Water cure is a novel of disturbing beauty, its pace steady and rhythmic, building almost imperceptibly to an inescapable crescendo. Reminiscent of Jeffery Eugenides’ The Virgin suicides, both in tone and exploration of sisterhood, The Water cure looks intimately at womanhood through the eyes of women, where Eugenides looked through those of men. The Virgin suicides could only have been written by a man – the female body and psyche portrayed as a mystery, strange because it is different from their own and fascinating because of its unobtainable allure. The Water cure, however, could only have been written by a woman – the female body and psyche portrayed still as mystery, but strange because it is different from that of men, other from the norm; felt as weak, only because it has been told that it is so, and therefore resented.

The world from which the girls are separated is deadly to women, or so they are told. Filled with men who hurt and kill either with violence, or else accidentally with their mere toxic existence and proximity, the world is one where female existence is impossible alongside man. The Water Cure has therefore been referred to as a “feminist dystopia” and compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However, to refer to Mackintosh’s work in this way is as frustrating a reduction as the reduction of women which the book itself so tactfully addresses. Don’t get me wrong, I love a dystopian novel, but The Water Cure is just so much more than that. We never actually see the world full of toxic men, we can only piece it together from the reports of the mainland from secondary characters, all of which have enough reasons to lie for their words not to be taken at face value. The ambiguity of whether this male poison actually exists, combined with frighteningly relatable testimonies of the women from the mainland of the violence and harassment committed by men, begs us to consider:

If this is a dystopia, then do we live in real life dystopia?

What I found most surprising is how despite its peculiar, almost surreal storyline, The Water Cure manages to capture near-universal female experience. I was occasionally overwhelmed by the accuracy of Mackintosh’s articulation of my own experiences of my body and emotions; of my relationships with other women, and most of all of my relationships with men.

I highly recommend The Water Cure – a poetic and insightful study of sisterhood and female experience in a world dominated by men and marked by male violence. Touching on sparsely-trodden topics like otherness, female testimony and internalised misogyny, in my eyes this is a must-read.

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