In Sophie Mackintosh’s debut dystopian fiction, The Water Cure (Doubleday), love is rationed like water–and in scarce supply. Dubbed “a gripping, sinister fable” by dystopian queen Margaret Atwood, I had high expectations coming into this novel. Mackintosh did not disappoint.
Three sisters live on an island with their mother and father, who they call “King,” far from the rest of civilization. They routinely undergo tests of drastic physical and emotional strain to cleanse their bodies and safeguard them from the toxicity of the rest of the world and the dangerous men it is teeming with.
But are the sisters really being protected in a perfect bubble as their parents preach, or held as prisoners in their own sanctuary?
These women are taught since infancy that these exercises are essential to their health and well-being, while in reality, they are manipulative and cruel. Rather than band the sisters together in camaraderie, these tests tear them apart.
Physically, these exercises are a far cry from your average day at the gym. King holds the women down in the water to see who can hold out longest, even as they start seeing dark spots and sputtering for air. The sisters are also bundled up and thrown in a sauna until they lose all their fluids and pass out. While the women believe they are cleansing their bodies, they are subjected to unusual and damaging rituals daily.
In terms of emotional abuse, there’s plenty of that to go around as well. The sisters draw sticks of iron to see who will receive less love from the entire family. One sister must choose to kill a small defenseless animal herself to spare another sister the pain of completing the task. They must often read from a book that details graphic violence men have inflicted on women. All of these tests are meant to remind the girls that the world is a dangerous place, full of men that would kill them the first chance they get.
In the past, other women who have been abused by men have willingly have come to the island in hopes of recovering. But they also undergo the strange treatments and it is unclear how cathartic the therapy is. Regardless, while the sisters have memories and flashbacks of these women, there are none with them on the island at present.
While the effects of treatment on these women are unclear, readers can hazard a guess to their outcomes based on the sisters themselves. The narrative is split
Lia suffers from self-harm and depression. She is a character many readers will feel sympathetic towards for her frustration with the exercises and her desire to love and be loved. Sky tries her best to cope and live her life in accordance with the exercises, but we receive very little from her perspective, she is presented for the majority of the story as merely a moldable product of their parents’ ambitions.
However, two hitches occur to derail this cloistered community. First, the King dies on one of his journeys to get supplies from the outside world (he is the only one strong enough to venture into it).
Second, three men arrive on the island, their mother’s worst fear here to challenge everything the sisters have been taught and alter their family dynamics forever. Are the men as innocent as they say, or were the mother and King right all along? Will the sisters be able to rely on one another?
Sophie Mackintosh has built a world that will yank you in and throw you around like a violent tide. Continuous twists will test your assumptions and leave you gasping for a conclusion, unexpected yet satisfying all the same.
The Water Cure is now available to purchase.
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ABOUT SOPHIE MACKINTOSH:
Sophie Mackintosh is a British novelist and short story writer. Her debut novel, The Water Cure, was nominated for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.