Grace, Lia and Sky are sisters living with their (otherwise unnamed) Mother and their father, King, on a remote island, far enough away to protect the women from a toxic environment that threatens their very survival. King, as their protector and intermediary between them and this other world, he alone returns periodically for supplies, proving that whatever threat this other parts of the society poses, the family cannot exist without it. Otherwise, the family supports itself through subsistence agriculture and by providing treatment for other women who escape that other society, and come in search of fresh air and the variety of abusive “water cures” that Mother performs on them.
The novel is told in three parts – at the beginning of part 1, King disappears, dead presumably, his bloody shoe alone remaining to be buried, beginning a period of mourning that Mother reluctantly permits, encouraging the girls to turn their sadness outwards and become stronger instead. The older daughters Grace and Lia alternate writing snippets of what feel like journal entries, although Grace’s narrative appear to be addressed to the missing King, almost as if she is a spy keeping a logbook. At times, they join with their baby sister Sky and the three voices unite to show the reality in their women-only household, that is, until a trio of men appear on their beach and threaten to infiltrate their boundaries with their particular brand of poison.
Part 2 is narrated by Lia (backwards A-I-L) and she describes the experience of having non-relative men on the island for the first time. She is the one who opens the door both literally and figuratively and forges the next era of existence for the women in this family, and shows what it is like to fall, to lose one’s self in obsession.
Part 3 is a return to Grace’s narrative, again directed to King, as though he owns her words. Her perspective contains flashbacks to their escape from the mainland, to interactions between the parents and memories from what happened when the sick women came. Grace’s story gives long-awaited details about the history of the family dynamics, as well as colors in blurry images. As the oldest, she is more experienced, can face the reality of their present situation, can make plans for the future and whether they will remain in their now defunct home, or where they will go and what they will do if they leave.
This dystopic fiction is Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel and was long listed for the 2018 Man Booker prize. It is one of those novels that if you haven’t read anything of the synopsis, the initial set-up of the story might be a little confusing. The Water Cure is narrated by the three sisters and is reported in alternating perspectives, with the switchovers happening very quickly – within a page or two. Other than that, there are sections narrated by a united trio to show the of universality of their experiences, the borderline abuse endured by their parents, the fears that don’t dissipate with age and their complex reactions to the stories they have been told about why they inhabit this world and what the outside looks like. As a literary metaphor, The Water Cure touches on the dangers of New Age treatments and the need to regulate health care but also discusses feminist issues by exploring how risk and ruin can lurk inside what looks like a safe haven.
I enjoyed aspects of the storytelling, especially the way the author sets up the binary gender differences as the cause and effect of the suffering being detailed in the book, with men as perpetrators and women as victims and later how she challenges her own idea in showing how their experiences varied with their ages. I liked how the characters’ names reflected their interaction with each other but even that didn’t carry through for all the cast.
However, while this had a good plot, I wasn’t a fan of the storytelling. There were parts of the narrative that felt wordy and in Part 1, the sisters voices didn’t feel sufficiently unique to distinguish between their stories. I appreciated the imagery and I was very much anticipating whether Makintosh would present a trans-gender or androgynous character and what that would look like.
I gave this a 3 star rating because:
- I liked the different responses to water from within and exposure to alternate sources, and how one was encouraged and the other banned.
- I enjoyed the character’s names and how they both embodied and rejected their titles
- I admired the premise that parental sacrifices are not always understood or even accepted by their children and if this was the metaphor behind this unlikely story, then it was an interesting way to present this age-old rebellion in a new way, and give an alternate view of how life lessons often feel like torture.
- I didn’t really care for how disposable some of the characters felt and I searched for what their ambiguous disappearances meant and couldn’t find the greater meaning.
- If dangerous love was the overall theme of the story, then it wasn’t my favorite thing to read about.
Overall, I think this is a good read but not a great one, and certainly not a new favorite for me.
Aspects of this book reminded me Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi as well as The Roanoke Girls.
I received an electronic Advance Reader Copy courtesy of Netgalley in order to provide this review because the novel is set for release in the US in January 2019 although it was published in the UK earlier this year. If you’d like to purchase a copy of The Water Cure or any other of the books I talked about, please consider using my affiliate link to help me get even more books to review. Thanks!