The Water Cure
I have never visualized a book as much as I have this one. Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel The Water Cure is one of sisters dressed in white linen, swimming pools, a curved bay of sand lined by a thick green forest, and a house illuminated in its solitude.
Grace, Lia, and Sky live isolated from the world on an island-like utopia. Isolated out of protection, for the world of men is toxic and their mere presence hurts women; it is said that men contaminate the air. Being too close to one will cause a woman to fall ill – their hair will fall out, their lungs fail, they will bleed from the mouth, the nose, the eyes.
Twice read, with a day of moping in between, this novel struck something within me. Maybe it was the aesthetics – that hazy feel of heat and femininity, or maybe the depiction of sisterhood and its multifaceted and fragmented articulation of love and loathe and loyalty in a single instant. Or the sense of my childhood memories of long summers spent on an isolated island of golden sand and water so clear we could see the sting-rays swim beneath us. We were jubilant in our lives of freedom but trapped by the sea and the knowledge of the world beyond it. Unlike the sisters, it was just a moment, not a life.
The novel begins with the disappearance of King, their father, who has been the only man they have ever seen. With his disappearance comes a new kind of freedom. King’s cruel rituals are still enforced by their mother, but without the presence of their father, they allow themselves to cry, to question, to wonder.
The Water Cure reads as if Shakespeare’s The Tempest were directed by Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation), but with three Mirandas who have voices that are as clear and true as the water that heals them. Told from multiple perspectives, the narrative bounces between the sisters’ voices that narrate as ‘we,’ and also as ‘I’. It is a collective telling that is powerful in its lyrical prose.
I am prone to underlining my books, picking out the words and images that echo long after I’ve put the book down, and in this one, the pages are littered with marks of water and light and heat. Water, light, heat: the foundations of the sisters’ isolated existence, things that heal and mend. Yet, as ethereal as it seems, an unsettling thread of shadow lies under the narrative as the outside world constantly threatens to pervade their existence, poisoning them with masculinity.
The Water Cure is a feminist dystopia, but for women reading it in the 21st century, it’s just our lives. It’s not hard to imagine a world where women die due to proximity to men, because that already happens. Women are raped, attacked, and killed at the hands of men; Mackintosh has merely manifested it in a different way.
But is it best to run away from the world that threatens to kill you? To exist in a world that is safe but solitary? And of course, the sisters are not safe. They will never be.