The Water Cure
By Sophie Mackintosh
A dystopic family drama about three sisters on an isolated island, raised to fear men.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh is about three sisters living on an island who have been raised to fear men. The book has been touted as a “feminist revenge fantasy” and made the Longlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.
A man named King has removed his family, a wife and three daughters, from society and placed them in a sprawling home on an island where they can be safe from the toxic world of men. When King goes missing, the women fear the worst, keeping up the protections that supposedly keep them safe from the toxic world outside of their island.
When three men appear on the beaches of their island, the women begin to fear the worst. Slowly, as they accept the men into their home and try to protect themselves from their dangerous existence, things begin to change on the island. With the three sisters struggling in different ways to accept the mens’ presence, things begin to fall apart in surprising and drastic ways.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Doubleday Books through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
This book is full of tension, built slowly over time as the world is gradually revealed and explored. The familial relationships within the book are what take up the meat of the story. Mackintosh presents two views of family, that of the three sisters and their parents and that of Llew and his son Gwil and Llew’s brother James. Both sets of families are presented as problematic and very much at odds with each other.
The sisterly bond is such a twisted, crooked thing that it takes a while to unpack. Grace, Lia, and Sky are raised in a hostile environment that is both abusive and irregular. They are meant to experience everything together, to sacrifice for each other, and to love each other conditionally, even as they are pitted against each other.
Their relationship with their parents is no less fraught, with hints of incest, competition for parental love, and abusive “therapies” they are told are meant to protect them from the toxins that exist in the outside world. Even when their father disappears, each sister struggles with what it means to grieve for a man, a gender they have been taught to hate.
When the men arrive on their island, a second view of family is displayed, a kind they have not been exposed to, that of a father and son. While Llew is shown to be close and playful with his son, this relationship also proves to be poor, with Llew frequently spending his time in pursuit of other amusements. As the story is told only from the girls’ perspective, not too much attention is paid to the relationships between the men.
Since it took much of the novel for the significance of the girls’ family relationships to be made clear, I spent most of my time just trying to wrap my head around the reasons for animosity between Lia and Grace, between Grace and King, and between the three sisters and their mother. Reasons for each girl to feel a certain way about another character take time to fully come into focus and even then, the clarity is never fully realized and I can’t say I completely understand the motivations of each of the characters.
Overall, it’s a stunning book, very thought provoking, and I couldn’t have imagined where it would lead me. Though I’m not normally a fan of multiple points of view, here, I think, Mackintosh has utilized this tool to the greatest effect.
Literary Value: 4/5
I was instantly pulled into this book, with so many questions, that I needed keep turning the pages to find out what would happen. Mackintosh does an excellent job of building tension through quiet prose, slowly peeling back layers to this story, as each of the girls, both together and separate, give voice to their thoughts about anything from their own relationships with each other to that of their mother, their father, their life on the island.
While the story starts off calm, there are ripples that form with small instances of rebellion or apathetic mentions of abusive behavior that both stunned and puzzled me as to what was truly going on. With the arrival of the men, their world is thrown into chaos and the girls begin seeing rapid change and their own personal philosophies are thrown out of sync. I love how Mackintosh gives such varied voice to the three sisters, making them stand out in their own way through small, but numerous little glimpses. The other characters take shape through the sisters’ eyes, so the reader can only piece together a tattered, perhaps biased view of them, making the reality of their situation questionable.
All in all, the prose work is strong. It can be a bit flowery or artful at times, especially considering the girls’ limited education and understanding of the world, but it didn’t get out of hand. I think many will find this book to be worthy of the high praise it has received as a literary novel.
Entertainment Factor: 2/5
This low rating is purely due to my lack of enjoyment as I read this book. While I think the topic is interesting, progressive, and unique, I never fully felt immersed into the story. Full disclaimer: I’m not a fan of sad/depressing fiction. And this book is very, very sad. The amount of abuse that’s hinted at or briefly shown is horrifying. The mother herself is such a destructive character, but even the girls, at times, go at each other with such venom that I couldn’t separate my sadness from my recognition that the book is well written and the story is good. So, if you also don’t like reading sad books, you have been warned!
Cover Art Rating: 4/5
The cover is simplistic, but I think it really matches the overall tone of the story. I love the murky blue of it and the partially submerged figure of a woman is a good nod to the title, and the meaning of the “water cure” is revealed in the book and ties it all together. It’s pleasing to look at and there’s a subtle beauty to it that I think parallels the beauty of the island the novel takes place on.
Overall Rating: 3.25/5
Despite my not liking it on an entertainment level, I would recommend this book to read. I think it does live up to its hype. Mackintosh delves deeply into the female psyche and she does a good job of representing different perspectives. Each of the girls are their own person and much is learned about them while looking from their eyes.
I will say that I feel the “feminist” message is a little muddled. While this book certainly passes the “Bechdel Test,” the reader gets hit over the head with the “men are dangerous” message almost as much as the girls do. What I think the stronger message is, what Mackintosh accomplishes much better, is the idea that heavily enforcing gender norms is dangerous and retrograde to a person’s development, and that separating one gender from the other only causes more harm. The girls, when faced with this mysterious, “dangerous,” gender not only don’t know how to handle this shared space but also have only been given tools of violence/self-defense, so that any interaction is already pointed towards toxicity rather than mutual understanding. And while Mackintosh is making a point by making toxic masculinity literal, I feel that the message that should be taken from this is not “feminist victory,” but that this world is destined for failure. Their world is literally crumbling around them, slowly dying.
If you like introspective, narrative prose and female-power, this book is certainly worth checking out.