THE WATER CURE by Sophie Mackintosh
Doubleday Books, January 8, 2019
The Water Cure was nothing like I expected, but I ended up enjoying it all the more for that. This is a vaguely unsettling, eerie tale of three sisters who were raised by their parents on a remote island to fear all men other than their father. They believe the outside world is dangerous and toxic, and they regularly perform painful rituals and ‘therapies’ to cleanse themselves. But then their father vanishes without a trace and three strange men wash up on their shore, and the novel takes place over the span of the week that follows.
The biggest surprise for me was that I was expecting a Handmaid’s Tale-esque feminist dystopia, but in reality I wouldn’t actually describe this book as a dystopia at all. I think a certain amount of ambiguity in this regard is intentional, especially at first, and I think there is going to be some healthy debate about how you can read this book, as a lot of questions deliberately go unanswered. But if the appeal of dystopias to you is the worldbuilding and big picture stuff, The Water Cure will undoubtedly disappoint. To me this felt more like an allegorical contemporary (or if not contemporary, at least set in the very near-future) whose strength lies more in its exploration of complex interpersonal dynamics than in its merit as a dystopic text. I’d compare it to King Lear or The Beguiled (and I would not be surprised if Sofia Coppola directed an eventual film adaptation) over The Handmaid’s Tale or The Power.
But for me, its inability to fit neatly into the ‘feminist dystopia’ genre is only an asset. Sophie Mackintosh has created something strong and uniquely unsettling. Her prose is remarkably lyrical, and the insular setting she crafts is at once immersive and claustrophobic. This is a novel whose themes exist slightly below the surface, and though it has a lot to say about gender roles and social dynamics and what it means to exist in modern society as a woman, none of this leaps off the page at a quick glance. There’s an incredible amount of depth and subtlety here, especially for such a short novel.
The biggest problem – really, the only problem – I had with this novel was that I was occasionally unconvinced by the fact that these sisters had lived their entire lives so removed from society. Not only were their vocabularies littered with colloquial phrases in a way that seemed at odds from how their parents spoke, at times they drew generalizations about human nature in a way that didn’t ring true for someone with such a limited world view. But this is something I found myself forgiving more and more as the novel went on, as it ultimately had the air of a fable, and I didn’t find myself too hung up on the details.
Basically, don’t expect another Handmaid’s Tale, but don’t think it isn’t worth your time because of that. I actually liked The Water Cure better.
Thank you to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Sophie Mackintosh for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.