The Water Cure, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, is a lyrical dystopian novel set somewhere in the future. Like Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale, Sophie Mackintosh’s debut focuses on the dangers of male domination and patriarchal systems, but unlike its predecessor, this 2019 release contains its setting to one island and its cast of characters to one family.
The Water Cure centers on three sisters who have been raised on an isolated island away from the poisonous toxins of the modern world. The girls have been told by their father, King, that these toxins originate from men and that the abandoned hotel they reside in is the only safe sanctuary there is from sickness and death. Throughout their childhood, women came to the hotel and participated in a number of “therapies” that would cleanse them of the poison in their veins; these rituals were extremely painful and violent, and King directed them all. The girls, Grace, Lia, and Sky, also had to participate in the cleansings and were forced by their parents to swallow salt water until they vomited or throw live animals into the fire and watch as it burned. These therapies were supposed to harden their bodies and minds against the pains than men inflicted upon women and were also supposed to protect them from the dangers of love.
When The Water Cure opens, King is dead, and the girls and their mother are left to continue the rituals and survive on the abandoned island without their leader and protector. Then one day, two men and a boy wash up on the beach, and the girls are faced with the ultimate test. Will they be able to protect themselves from the poisonous presence of men? Will these new faces change the way they see the outside world? Will Lia, the lonely middle child, be able to close her heart against the damaging effects of falling in love?
Feminist dystopias have been conquering the 21st century’s literary world, but Mackintosh’s new novel is unlike any of them. There is very little world building or explanations of how the past lead to the world that Grace, Lia, and Sky are currently living in. The book is told from the sisters’ point of view, so they can only tell you what they know and what their experiences are, all of which have been filtered through their parents, specifically, King. The chapters alternate between the individual perspectives of the two older sisters, Grace and Lia, and then the collective perspective of all three, as if the sisters were linked into one unit, one experience. This is an interesting technique because it shows how the isolation of their home and the “therapies” have joined them together. Although there is an extremely problematic “love story” in this book, The Water Cure is truly about the bond that Grace, Lia, and Sky share, and how they are able to endure the torture-filled life their parents have created for them.
The Water Cure is not a plot-focused book, and this was sometimes to its detriment. The introspective, lyrical prose is well done, but there is very little difference between Grace and Lia’s chapters: the narrative voices of both girls were identical. The book could have been stronger if the narrative was told from all three of the girls throughout the entire book: this would have been refreshingly different and would have justified the voices of all three girls sounding the same.
The strength of this book is that it’s unique: it’s in the genre of dystopia but it doesn’t follow any kind of formula. Because this is the book’s selling point, the development of the plot and characters is a little rough around the edges. You’ll want to check out Mackintosh’s The Water Cure if you’re looking for an idiosyncratic, well-written take on the future of male dominance and feminism, not if you’re looking for a dystopia filled with brilliant characters and detailed world building.