“The creeping unease kept me going” – The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

It’s not every debut novelist that gets onto the Man Booker longlist, but then The Water Cure is not any old debut novel: it’s a strange, sinister tale that pulses with the suppressed rage of the powerless and the abused; it’s slow and creeping and full of righteous feminist fury. Which, you know, is probably exactly what the (not-exactly gender-balanced) Booker needs.

Sisters Grace, Lia and Sky live with their mother and their father, King, in isolation: they’ve grown up knowing that the world beyond their borders (a rusted barbed-wire fence; the sea itself) is a world in which masculinity is literally toxic to women, a world in which men thrive in the conditions that break their wives and daughters, and that their family alone lives in an untainted haven. Damaged women used to come to their home to be healed (the titular Cure), but lately it’s just been the five of them, practicing their protective rituals, apportioning their love carefully, because in this world it’s not just the air and the touch of the infected that can hurt them, but the very excesses of their own emotion. But one day King fails to return from a supply trip to the mainland, and soon after, three men (two adults and a child) appear on the beach…

Beyond that, the plot’s pretty simple: the outer world encroaches; by one means or another, the sisters’ worldviews alter; the secret world begins to collapse. Structurally, that lends the novel a degree of predictability; its strength lies, however, not in shock or sudden revelation, but rather in the slow accretion of detail; in the reader’s growing recognition of the sisters’ world; in Mackintosh’s skill in depicting the social and political realities of existing in a female body in that world, in our world, in any world. The book is an exploration of power and vulnerability, of deception and self-deception, of psychological and physical manipulation; it uses its sequestered setting to create, first, an allegory of the violence enacted upon women in the world, and, second, a private arena for that violence to be probed, exploited, overturned. It’s narrated, first and last, by the sisters in chorus, and, in the long middle sections, by Lia (the second sister, the one most affected by the men’s arrival), and all this is interspersed by snippets of testimony from the damaged women who’ve fled to their mother for help. The novel moves, then, from relative (apparent) innocence and unity, to uncertainty, fear and estrangement, and finally back to sorority, as it traces the girls’ slow and defiant intrusion into a world that’s telling them they ought to remain silent.

If that all sounds a little vague, it’s because I’m trying to avoid spoilers, as difficult as that is in a text that’s more about thematic revelation than plot, particularly in one with a theme that’s so ragingly current. A few comparison points, then: think Dogtooth crossed with Carry Me To Ground, with a touch of The Handmaid’s Tale and Herland, more than a dollop of Shakespeare, and, well, every news story you’ve ever read about violence towards women. Add a touch of pretty ethereal descriptions so you get into the off-kilter vibe of the family’s strange oasis, and you’ll be in the right territory.

Any Cop?: I prefer my prose less ethereal, but the creeping unease kept me going, and the full-throttle anger of the final quarter or so was my reward. Great stuff, one for all the feminists out there, and let’s see if the shortlist will take it on…


Valerie O’Riordan



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