The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

A review of the feminist dystopian literary novel The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh.

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The Water Cure is a story of three sisters—Grace, Lia, and Sky—who live on a remote island with their mother and father (King). Their parents run a kind of centre for hurt women who come there to escape the toxic outside world and partake of the healing water cure. The three sisters know that the world is dangerous and men are deadly, but when three men wash up on the island’s shore it rocks their existence in ways they never dreamed.

This book was described everywhere as a feminist dystopia and I heard some places compare it to The Tempest as well, so I was very excited to read it. The dystopia label is questionable, though. The family constantly refers to the toxicity of the world beyond their island and at first it seems like they mean literal toxins (they bathe constantly, use salt for purification and avoid physical contact with everything not properly cleansed) but then it becomes an ambiguous statement referring more to the behaviour and attitudes of the outside world. It’s not that men are literally poisonous; their masculine attitudes are deadly and that’s what the parents are trying to protect their family against.

The book is narrated by the three sisters, sometimes in plural and sometimes singular first person. It does make it a very intimate read, I personally love plural first person. The writing is lyrical and beautiful. Ultimately however, I didn’t find a lot of personality or voice there, which in a book that’s very character-driven was a major shortcoming for me.

I was prepared for some ambiguity and moral grey areas but this book is so grey that for me it became a bit muddled. It’s impossible to deny that men have a history of hurting women, so to some extent raising one’s daughters away from men could be seen as practical; sensible even. However, the family take it to the extreme of raising their daughters in a cultish, physically and emotionally abusive setting. When the men arrive on the island (Spoiler alert!) one of the daughters is so starved of affection that she immediately latches onto them as a way of escape. But when the men turn out (almost inevitably) to be as bad as the girls were warned they would be, there is no escape, and no real hope offered of any other alternatives.

I think the overall message is that you can’t cut yourself off from the world; that no matter how awful and dangerous living is, it is worse and far more dangerous to separate yourself from love. That’s a great message and I really liked this book intellectually. Emotionally, however, it didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped. The writing was lovely but lacking and the story, while heavy on theme, didn’t give me the satisfaction of closure that would make it really resonate.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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