Part of me has always felt a simmering sense of panic, that some unknown danger or threat could be lurking around every corner. Fear can be such a powerful impetus in our lives both for motivating us to keep ourselves safe and hindering us from fully engaging with the world. It feels essential that children should be nurtured in a way that allows them to be cautious without being so panicked they seal themselves off from experience. So I was really struck how Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel “The Water Cure” creatively and dramatically describes a group of three sisters who exist in a perpetual state of fear. In one collectively narrated part of the story they ominously feel: “Emergency has always been with us, if not present emergency then always the idea that it is coming.” They live in a deserted and dilapidated estate on an island within the fenced boundaries designated by their mother and father who is referred to as “King”. They’ve been taught that the society outside of this circumscribed space is diseased and toxic so they never leave it and subsist on tinned foodstuffs while performing arcane and painful rituals to cleanse themselves and keep them safe. They are warned in particular about the dangers of men and how some men thrive on the toxic environment surrounding them. In the past, sick women arrived on their shores, but they didn’t live long. And one day two men and a boy arrive so that their carefully ordered existence is disrupted. In her portrayal of this intensely isolated family, Mackintosh’s hypnotic story shows the unwieldy process of development, the transformative effect of passion and the inbuilt tension between genders.
It feels really effective how this novel is partly like a dystopian fable, but rather than build or explain the reasons for this poisoned world it’s focused through the innocent point of view of the girls who’ve never known anything outside of this existence. So all we understand about the world is through their limited first person or collective narratives. All we get are a scattering of hints like this from middle sister Lia: “Every year the seasons become warmer and it is the earth telling me that change is coming.” It becomes more a survivalist story as we gradually learn their odd and violent purification practices and gradually discover the truth about their lives. In doing so, the novel explores more about the development of their natural instincts and identities which sometimes clash with the stringent rules their parents have designated for them.
Mackintosh has a really striking way of writing about the body and the rituals the family perform highlight the sometimes uncomfortable ways we inhabit our own bodies. It’s like their exteriors need to be toughened through processes of cutting, isolated meditation, ingesting huge amounts of salt water and temporary suffocation as a way of preparing them for the inevitable violence of the world: “Pain is a currency like the talismans we sewed for the sick women, a give and take, a way to strengthen and prepare the body.” They are also trials by which these sick women can return to life and themselves after encountering trauma “It was beautiful to see, Mother pointed out. A woman becoming whole again. It’s true that, after the water cure, their bodies had a new solidity, as if somebody had redrawn their outlines. Their eyes were clear, ready to return.” But the sisters, whose lives are so insulated and who only know the pain that’s been designated by these rituals, have a very different relationship with their bodies. Lia strikingly describes how being looked at with desire causes her to inhabit her skin in an entirely different way: “My body, up until now, has been just a thing that bled. A thing with vast reserves of pain. A strange instrument that I don’t always understand. But something kicks in, triggered by the looking.” This is such a powerful way of describing the way as we develop and encounter the gaze of others it can transform how we feel about ourselves and the relationship we have with our own bodies.
The story also forms a really powerful metaphorical representation of the uneasy power relationship between men and women. The sisters have been reared to believe that men are incredibly violent creatures. Men are the most violent threat outside the fences surrounding their home but this violence is also such a substantial part of human existence its internalized as well: “The violence came for all women, border or no border. It was already in our blood, in our collective memory. And one day the men would come for us too.” Yet when the sisters actually encounter the small group of men who arrive on their doorstep they discover how gender dynamics are really much more complicated. It felt very powerful and haunting how the story both affirms and undermines notions that the relationship between different genders must be prone to some inevitable violence.
What I enjoyed and admired so much about this novel is the way it tells what is essentially a traditional story about family and romance, but in such a uniquely dark way that is like a curious blend of “Lord of the Flies”, Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides” and Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve”. The accumulation of observations the girls make have a forceful impact which makes the fabulous setting have a real-world resonance. I was especially moved by the way Mackintosh describes the position of being someone’s child: “It has always been that we are what you made us, and so our survival is a tacit endorsement of you, however much we might hate that. But our lives are our lives.” This feels like a statement that could be made by anyone who has to come to grips with the peculiarities of their origins and the unique way they’ve been raised, but who must embrace the challenges of their own free will in order to move forward in life. The account of the sisters told in “The Water Cure” is both a wonderful testament to that hard-earned independence and a tale so engaging I was gripped throughout this impressive novel.