Review | The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

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The Water Cure, Sophie Mackintosh
Hamish Hamilton, 2018
256 pp, £12.99 (hardback)

False utopias, and their human cost, are at the core of Sophie Mackintosh’s uneasy, hypnotic debut, which charts three sisters’ attempts to navigate the fallout from their father’s disappearance and the unexpected arrival of strange men on their fiercely protected soil.The sisters – Lia, Grace, and Sky – live on an island in an unspecified time and place, in a world that seems at once familiar and remote. They live with their parents, King and Queen, although we learn in the novel’s opening sentence that their father has died, leaving the precarious dream he has created for them in this place to unravel. It transpires that the sisters have been raised on a dark combination of ritual punishment and redemption – the ‘cure’ ominously hinted at in the title. By way of a series of complex games and ceremonies, they have been taught to love and hate each other in almost equal measure, and to fight for whatever narrow space of feeling might be given to them in their parents’ hearts. They have also been taught that their female bodies are endangered; at risk from the violent men apparently running riot on the ‘mainland’ beyond

It is a disturbing and captivating premise. Myths are deeply woven into the fabric of Mackintosh’s plot: the three sisters guarding their island bring to mind the classical sirens luring sailors to the rocks, and the Gorgons making statues of intruders at the entrance to their cave. Llew, James, and Gwil, the men who wash up on the beach one day, are never quite sure if they are guests or captives in the family home. The sisters are both repelled by and drawn to them, especially Lia, whose painful efforts to risk emotional connection, those dangerous ‘personal energies often called feelings’, govern the powerful middle section of the novel. Her voice is raw and angry and full of life, but the writing here is always restrained, finding beauty in spare descriptions, each image like a pebble carefully smoothed. Elsewhere, in short lyrical vignettes, the sisters speak as one, creating the disconcerting sense that they are almost interchangeable, a chorus in thrall to external forces. One of the many strengths of Mackintosh’s writing, though, is in drawing out the subtle differences between Grace, the eldest, and Lia, whose ‘golden year’ of being near doubles has long since passed. The sisters are bound to each other through a dangerous combination of resentment and fierce need, which only becomes more pronounced as they vie to fill the space left by their father, and then by their missing mother.

Through this strange, luminous story of island life run threads of Shakespeare’s many shipwrecks, principally The Tempest, with its bewildered men stumbling ashore to find themselves governed by alien laws and watched by an enchanted Miranda. There are also, of course, hints of Twelfth Night and King Lear, those dramas of sibling loss and rivalry. Yet Mackintosh has created a fiction that is distinct and very much her own. Its crises are those of the modern world: the sisters have a terrible fear of the ‘toxins’ that might be transmitted through the men’s bodies, or even carried to the island by the sea and the air.  The environment around them seems resolutely polluted, although it is never clear how much of this ‘toxin-filled world’, a hell merely ‘biding its time’, is the stuff of parental fantasy. When Grace, perhaps hitting upon the real source of the poison, tells her mother ‘this house is going to kill us’, she is brutally rebuked for her offence, a reminder of the aggression always lurking behind parental concern in this novel.

This incident is one of many moments of violence, and Mackintosh does not shy away from the physical and psychological effects of abuse. These depictions never feel gratuitous or out of place but rather vitally necessary, embedded in the visceral experiences of these young women – a part of the difficult, antagonistic world they inhabit. The Water Cure is a moving, unsettling study of family trauma, but it also has the feel of a parable, a modern myth about the close relationship between women’s bodies and pain, be this the pain of rape, or childbirth, or self-harm. It is in the mysterious places beneath their own skin that the sisters seem to discover the truth of their ritual suffering and perhaps the means to break free of it: ‘We understood it would be difficult, hurtful, to recognize that the danger was in ourselves. That the safe place had been contaminated from the start. There is nothing ‘safe’ about Mackintosh’s writing: hers is a debut that probes into the dark meeting places between fantasy and violence, and the disturbing transition from child’s to adult’s play.

by Megan Girdwood