The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
This book is an odd one. I’ve seen it described as a dystopian coming-of-age fairytale and I think that is mostly a fitting description, but the fairytale part I’m a bit iffy on.
The Water Cure is a story of three sisters, Grace, Lia, and Sky who are raised by their parents on what they think is an island, safe from the toxin that has infected the rest of the world beyond their border. Women sometimes come to their shores to recover and be cured after violent, poisonous experiences with men. Men—except for their father, King—are dangerous, and by keeping the girls isolated and purifying them up through torturous “cures” their parents strive to protect them. They are toughened up through rules and rituals around love, preparing them to do anything for their sisters. The protection itself, however, is traumatizing. Lia explains: “Trauma is a toxin that hooks into our hair and organs and blood and becomes part of us, the way heavy metals do, our bodies nothing more than a layering of flesh around everything ingested and experienced” (46). Then, King dies and three men turn up on the shore.
This book has been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale and I get the comparison, but Mackintosh’s writing style reminds me more of Emma Donaghue, specifically in Kissing the Witch. There is a lightness to her tone, even when the narrators recount difficult, brutal experiences. Somehow, the writing seems to skim over the surface of things without being shallow. That feature makes the book a quick read with a lot of impact.
For example, Lia observes, “Llew puts the lid of the piano down without comment, pushes the stool back. There is a fluidity to his movements, despite his size, that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing, and I wonder what that must be like, to know that your body is irreproachable” (77).
Even still, I did not love this book. I think that there are interesting elements and the ending included a twist that I did not see coming and a gut-turning one that I did predict, but once those twists are revealed, I do not think that Mackintosh took advantage of the emotional punch in a way that fully resonated. I wanted more. More detail. More why. The narrative perspective follows the three sisters, or sometimes a chapter on all of them, but I wonder if having one toward the end that dove more into Mother’s experience before the story opens would have settled my disappointment.
I think this book is at its best when the girls’ experience connects to the world beyond their shores in a way that readers’ might recognize. For example, Lia’s relationship with Llew and his subsequent pushing her away sounds strikingly like a bad, half-assed breakup that it is clearest then of anywhere in the book that the men are meant to represent toxic masculinity, not some sort of dystopian world beyond the shores.
At any rate, The Water Cure puts a unique spin on violence against women and its emotional impact and features a compelling narrative voice. It is not a must-read in my opinion, however, because of how much of the book feels borrowed from other dystopian feminist literature. Fans of that genre, will likely really enjoy this book.