Winner of the 2016 White Review short-story prize as well as the Virago/Stylist short-story competition for her previous collection of short stories, Mackintosh also recently found herself longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her debut novel The Water Cure.
Raised in isolation by their parents, Mother and King, on an island, sisters Grace, Lia and Sky are taught that the world beyond the island is dangerous and that any contact with men is toxic. Through the so-called ‘rituals’ or ‘cures’, of which the water cure is but one, the girls are taught to ways to control their bodies and emotions by purifying them. These cult-like rituals lead the girls to essentially hate their bodies and view them with suspicion.
Both Mother and King believe they are creating a utopia of sorts on the island, away from the influence of men. We learn that the oldest of the girls, Grace. was exposed young, “when any trace of toxin would cause immeasurable harm, whether or not she remembered it.” They believe they are trying to protect the girls from this “contamination” but unknown toxins.
However, this supposed utopia is thrown into chaos with the arrival of 2 men and young boy who wash up on the island.
The novel explores, amongst other things, the meaning of family and particularly sisterly love in this dysfunctional family.
The claustrophobia the sister’s feel on the island is translated onto the page. The novel is divided into 3 parts entitled I. Father, II Men and III Sisters but the chapters are short and punctured by quotes from, I assume, women who had previously visited the island to escape whatever real or imagined catastrophe was plaguing the world beyond the island.
The Water Cure’s lyrical style may be off-putting to some and for a slim read, it took me some time to get through because of this. The narrative is told from each of the sister’s perspectives, though at times its all three girls or more than one and this I found confusing. Grace’s is the first distinct voice we hear and after re-reading the novel for a second time, I began to find new meaning in her narrative.
As a symbol, water fills the novel and like the water they continually delve into, this book is as much about what lays beneath the surface as the things that are said and done. The novel resists the big reveal which will feel unsatisfying for some but I loved that this was a female-centred novel, focusing on these girls experiences.
Trauma is evident throughout no more so than when Lia says, “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. These things sit inside us like the misshapen pearls we sometimes prise from oysters.” The truth of Lia’s word carry greater weight as the novel unfolds and overt and covert examples of violence reveal themselves.
The novel also raises questions about whether it is ever truly possible to resist patriarchy. Their father, King, controls and manipulates the lives of the girls with the help of their mother. His influence over the girls lives is never really shaken off.
For example, the novel opens with, “once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.” However, the male father figure is never absent from the novel. The girls recognise this when they state, “the father shape he leaves behind quickly becomes a hollow that we can put our grief into, which is an improvement in a way.” One can’t help but wonder, an improvement from what?
As you can probably tell from my review, I have mixed feelings about this novel. It was sold as a feminist novel but that certainly wasn’t how I read it. The men were as much victims in the novel as the women were. In the case of the girls, the strength of the novels lays in its description of trauma, abuse and the effects of isolation.
The problem I had was that I wasn’t sure, what I was meant to take away from this novel. The women/girls were no better than the men and the ‘cures’ didn’t fully explain their later behaviour. The message felt confused and never fully realised. Based on Mackintosh’s writing style along, it’s clear that she’s talented and I do think that she will go on to produce something that is far more developed than this is in her future novels.