The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

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Reviewed by Lucy Unwin

I can’t remember seeing a more perfect cover for a book in a while. Everything you need to know about The Water Cure is there. The obscure water hiding all manner of unknowable things. The girl vulnerable, head lifted, neck exposed. The fleshiness, with the female body at the centre of everything. The unanswered questions. The spare and stark simplicity of it.

This is a book of atmosphere, rather than action. It reminds me a lot of Deborah Levy’s wonderful Hot Milk. The writing is similarly poetic, and it blisters with all the same drowsy heat and psychological instability. Added to that is an atmosphere of stagnation and decay. Things that have been still too long. “The tomatoes, nearer the house, have taken on a life of their own. Their fruit falls and attracts stinging insects. A jam of dirt, overblown globs and seeds.” 

The three girls at the centre of The Water Cure have taken on a life of their own too. 

Their mother and King, their father, keep them isolated in a huge house on an island. They’re kept away from the dangerous men and toxins of the rest of the world, and subjected to numerous damaging “cures,” like “The Drowning Game” or “Love Therapy.” At the start of the novel King disappears, and not long afterwards, their mother does too. The girls are left to interpret the world themselves, through the hazy filter of what they’ve been taught.

The book starts from the unusual perspective of all three sisters together, thinking and narrating in unison, like a siren song. Their perspectives soon separate as everything descends towards a feminist Lord of the Flies.

It’s been presented as a near-future dystopia, but so much of it could be from the present day. The Water Cure itself: a Google search for the term finds people still following the discredited advice of some quack promoting water and salt cures. The attitude of men: in one description of the outside world, someone says: “I didn’t understand how rapidly things had changed, how all that had been needed was permission for everything to go to shit, and that permission had been granted.” — The election of Donald Trump springs to mind. Emotional toxins: the girls have been taught that, “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.” A yoga teacher has said something similar to me recently.

This could be present day or future, the dangers real or imagined; the truth is slippery here and ungraspable. The obscurity of it all is at once frustrating and admirable. Nothing is fully spelled out and the margin for interpretation is wide: you are submerged in their world to either sink or swim. I like that, but while I admire the author for keeping us in the dark, there are points where I can’t quite believe the characters wouldn’t have more curiosity about each other. It undermines the effect slightly.

But one thing emerges from the murky depths in full clarity, and that’s loneliness. The sisters, who start so close they think as one, have had a wedge driven between them. The natural sisterly love/hate dynamic is exaggerated by their circumstances to breaking point, and leaves them isolated. The middle sister, Lia, epitomises the loneliness most acutely. Although she blames herself even for that: “Every time I think I am very lonely, it becomes bleaker and more true. You can think things into being. You can dwell them up from the ground.” And as her older sister, Grace, says: “Sudden love, when gifted to a habitually unloved person, can induce nausea. It can become a thing you would claw and debase yourself for.”

Like the girl on the cover, alone in that cloudy sea of blue. She could be looking around for help, for her sisters, for just anyone to share the world with. And its an immersive experience, at once uncomfortable and intriguing, to see what she finds.

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Lucy Unwin blogs at Those Precious Stolen Moments

Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure (Hamish Hamilton, 2018) ISBN 978-0241334744, hardback, 256 pages.

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