My review of Dual Citizens, Alix Ohlin’s novel about mothers, daughters, and sisters, was my first review for Ron Slate’s On the Seawall. Plot- and character-driven novels can be difficult to write about when you’re trying to avoid a plot dump. It took more than one draft (or three) for me to figure out what I wanted to say about this particular book. Fortunately, I found Ohlin’s first-person narrator, a woman named Lark, problematic. I couldn’t decide whether the reader was expected to embrace or question her psychological motivations. Something which bothered me more than it should have. In the final review it didn’t matter. That complexity — of the character’s emotions, motivations and relationships, and their lack of resolution — are what ultimately made Dual Citizens a compelling read.
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.
Reinvention is a popular topic in novels written by, for or about women. I’m not sure why it is so prevalent, or gender specific, but I know it’s not a character arc I associate with male protagonists. Call it the heroine’s journey: the female character, out of dissatisfaction with her current life, or because it is crumbling around her, goes on a journey of self discovery. She upends her routines, re-examines her relationships and priorities, perhaps has an adventure or two along the way. If things don’t end tragically (always a possibility) by the final chapter she is successfully installed in a new life – by way of a move to Tuscany, getting her groove back or finding solace in food, religion & romance. Vague dissatisfaction and regret are the monsters the heroine must overcome to reach her happily ever after. In Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother that heroine is named Mitsuki Katsura.
Mitsuki handles the discovery of her husband’s affair, his second of their marriage, with a surprising lack of fuss. Maybe because they’re both in their mid-fifties and childless. Or because they’ve been gradually growing apart for some time. Over the past several years she has been occupied with caring for her elderly parents – first her father and, more recently, her mother. Her ongoing role of caretaker has depleted Mitsuki’s emotional reserves. Plainly put – she is exhausted. At the same time, in all aspects of her life, she remains almost ruthlessly efficient. While the catalyst for change is her husband’s betrayal (though, in the context of this particular book “betrayal” implies more drama than Mizumura’s prose allows), it is her mother’s death which provides Mitsuki with the means to leave him and start over.
Mizumura’s uses chapter titles in Inheritance from Mother, a charming practice that seems to have fallen out of fashion among writers. Chapter One is “The Long Telephone Call In Lieu of a Wake”, which begins in the middle of a phone call between Mitsuki and her sister, calculating how much they will inherit now that their mother is dead. We learn that it is a substantial amount, even for the sister who married into a wealthy family. Her mother, Noriko, was a vain and demanding woman towards whom Mitsuki and her sister feel mostly animosity. Theirs is an extremely complicated relationship, even in the realm of mothers and daughters. Their family history unfolds in a series of flashbacks and extended passages of
introspection. Mitsuki replays the pivotal moments of her life, as well as those in the lives of her sister, mother and grandmother. Women unwilling to sacrifice their personal happiness in order to fulfill the role of selfless wife/mother/daughter.
Discussions of literature, Japanese culture and history are present throughout the text. Minae Mizumura wrote a book of criticism: The Fall of the Japanese Language in the World of English which was translated into English and published by Columbia University Press. Without going in depth – suffice to say that some of the themes and preoccupations she discusses there are also present in Inheritance from Mother. Like when she segues from a description of how Japanese marriages were arranged by previous generations to an explanation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
Western novels made much of lover and lovers, an influence that came to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West. Although the eponymous hero of the classic Tale of the Genji was known for his amorous adventures, in Japanese literature romantic love had always been merely one theme among many – certainly less central than the change of seasons. The Western novels that had reached Japan in the last century and a half were almost all romance novels, transforming Japanese readers – especially women – into romantics. Women became more particular. They grew discontented with the husbands chosen for them by parents, relatives, or neighbors, longing like Emma for someone to whisper thrilling words of love. Their dissatisfaction with reality increased until, like Noriko, they rejected barbers’ sons and fled, each to her “Yokohama.” Not all of them went so far as to commit suicide, of course, but they led small, discontented lives and then died.
Novels are heartless.
Like the classic Japanese literature Mizumura mentions in the passage above, she is more concerned with the symbolic change of seasons than soap opera melodrama. While this is a story of reinvention, it is also one about the seasons of life. Mitsuki is entering Autumn – and she is doing it alone. I was reminded of May Sarton’s journals, particularly Journal of aSolitude, in which she quietly records her day-to-day life – the life of a single woman, without children, in middle age.
A complete lack of drama, though, can be disconcerting. There is a tonal flatness to Inheritance from Mother. Only in scenes with Noriko do we experience an exuberant, animated presence, – one that easily overshadows all the other characters. Juliet Winters Carpenter manages to preserve an idiosyncrasy of Minae Mizumura’s writing: an absence of crests and troughs in the plot. And a sense of stillness, the filtering out of background/ambient noise from the prose, which Carpenter renders beautifully into English.
We are used to reading about more volatile relationships between women. Relationships that often revolve around men. Yet, Mitsuki’s relationship with her mother, her sister, the female friend she asks to act as an intermediary between her and her husband once she decides to leave him, all get more page space than the cheating husband or the dead father (who appears to have been no more than a cipher even when alive). But most of the novel is dedicated to Mitsuki’s exploration of what the future looks like to her. Complicated ideas are explored in these pages, in ambitious (if quiet) ways. And while Mitsuki may resent and disapprove of her mother, she scrupulously does her duty as a daughter. Eventually realizing that you can’t always wait for happiness – sometimes you have to take it. Something that readers from any culture can relate to.