The Water Cure – A Feminist Dystopia

Title:  The Water Cure

Author: Sophie Mackintosh

Publisher: Doubleday (January 2019)

ISBN:  978 0385543873  

Just when it seems dystopian horror has had its moment, a new iteration emerges. The Water Cure, the Man Booker-nominated, debut novel of Welsh writer Sophie Mackintosh, depicts a distinctly female dystopia and arrives amidst the cyclical tides of the #MeToo movement.

So, what fresh hell this? Three sisters are raised on an island by their Mother and father, a man they all call King. The family lives in isolation, cut off and protected from a world where men carry a fatal sickness which afflicts only women. Or so the sisters have been taught. A lesson enforced by the broken women who stumbled ashore in search of the titular cure all through the girls’ shared childhood. But by the time we, the readers, enter the story, years have passed since the sick women stopped coming.

The women drank the salt water first, their faces pained. They threw up repeatedly into the buckets. Their bodies convulsed. They lay on the floor, but Mother helped them up, insistent. They rinsed their mouths, spat. Then they drank from the second row, glass after glass of our good and pure water, the water that came from our taps like a miracle, the water that the sprinklers cast out in the early dusk like a veil across the garden.

It is not explicitly stated how or why women suffer in this society – whether it is institutional, biological, or the same mundane misogyny of our world assigned greater urgency. The information is conflicting. Do the men carry a virus, or is this just male “cooties” the young women have been trained to fear? Grace, Lia, and Sky are shown a list of symptoms, which include “unexplained bleeding from anywhere, but particularly eyes, ears, fingernails.” But, this story is told primarily from the points of view of the two elder sisters, Grace & Lia, and it’s difficult to determine if they are reliable narrators. With no outside contact and only vague memories of the time before they were brought to the island, the sisters exist in a societal and family construct entirely designed and controlled by King and Mother.

The construct cracks when King fails to return from a supply trip to the mainland and the women believe him drowned. Within days or weeks of his disappearance (because time, itself, is a construct) two men and a boy wash up on the beach, interrupting the women’s mourning and exposing deep fissures in their family unit.

Mother — bereft and the keeper of dark secrets attempts to maintain what passes on the island for normalcy. “‘I would do anything for my girls,’ Mother says, stoic.” The history of her relationship to King is told in short bursts, in a style reminiscent of a Greek chorus and scattered throughout the book. Mother is an easy character to overlook, overshadowed by her three daughters. But it’s an important part of her role in the book, to speak for older women who find themselves invisible because they are no longer deemed desirable — first wives, actresses in their 40’s, stay-at-home moms.

Grace, we quickly learn, is pregnant. There is no question of who the father is because only one option exists. And Lia, as decreed by King’s law, has been designated “least loved” for the year – making her particularly vulnerable to the attention of one of the castaways. Only Sky, born on the island and innocent to the point of vacuity, seems unaffected by the intruders. But, then, we are never privy to Sky’s interior life in the way we are her two sisters’. She is more feral pup than a human girl, and it’s easy to wonder how the story might be changed if Sky had been allowed her own voice.

When we were younger, Grace and I played a game called Dying. It involved folding your body over and wadding your eyes up tight. It involved shaking. I was always the one who died – of course I was – so I lay in front of my sister as she threw salt on me.

‘We told you not to go out in the world!’ Grace would shout in imitation of Mother. ‘What did you wear?’

Just my body. Just the gown.

But even without Sky, Grace and Lia build a powerful and disturbing narrative. Lia, hungry for affection and love, always takes on the hardest tasks to spare her sisters physical and emotional pain. She is desperately lonely. Grace is an entirely different creature. Her interior life is everything. She exists as cold consciousness inconveniently contained within a female form. Grace’s contributions to the tale ring out over the text like the voice of an old testament prophet and, despite Lia being assigned the bulk of the chapters (including the entirety of Part II. Men), Grace’s chapters contain the most shocking revelations.

The three men (even the boy is designated a “man”) — James, Llew, and Gwil — expose the women in ways they can’t and don’t understand. Their rituals and therapies become absurd when performed in the presence of strangers. They are exotic, ever-so-slightly ridiculous creatures who do not know how to behave. And the oddity of their behavior is further exposed when we learn they are older than we believed them, or even they knew themselves, to be. The book’s tension comes from watching as the utopian glamour is stripped away layer by layer from their island sanctuary, revealing the twisted and ramshackle nature of the family’s existence. In some aspects, it is your typical “serpent in paradise” situation playing.

Mackintosh has said in interviews that she started writing with the question, what if masculinity were actually, physically, toxic? So we must accept the premise that the danger men pose in her novel is very real. In all other details, the world she describes is futuristic only in that readers are conditioned to assume all dystopias are, by default, set in a distant future. Nothing these women experience is so far removed from our own world as to be inconceivable. Their daily life is regimented by superstition and odd rituals, but so are the lives of the women trapped in misogynist cults and religious sects. Which is why The Water Cure is so canny. The same quality that makes Margaret Atwood’s work so chilling and seductive – describing a society where more is familiar than is foreign — imbues Mackintosh’s novel with a terrifying prescience. When James tries to convince Grace that “‘the world is not what you have been told… I mean, the world is very terrible, but you have been told a number of things that are untrue’”  she, the most clear-sighted of the sisters, understands that “the world has not been kind to him… yet he loves it anyway. It is a man’s place. His survival is implicit, a survival taken for granted.” Readers can recognize male privilege on display.

Reviews in the UK made the inevitable comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, but Mackintosh’ sisters possess a fierceness that I don’t remember in Atwood’s handmaidens. Anger and hostility underpin The Water Cure, as does a sense of tangible, feminine rage. Mackintosh is uncompromising in her message: Men are selfish. Men lie. Men manipulate. And so it comes as no surprise that James, Llew, and Gwil are not who or what they seem. Nor King. There can be no good men. Mackintosh goes all in and gives her characters over to their raw emotions. At the same time, she explores the classic female archetypes. Sky the virgin, Lia the whore and Grace the mother. Mother, herself, has evolved into the crone. Always recognizing that these archetypes are also patriarchal constructs and reminding us that each woman, with the possible exception of Sky, is complicit in her own and her sisters’ subjugation.

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