Grim vision of a closed society of sisters

Jessie Neilson reviews The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh, published by Penguin Random House. 

The Water Cure will inevitably draw comparisons with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. However, regardless of the dystopian vision, the subjugation and debasing of women, and other similarities, The Water Cure is such a strongly envisaged work that it should stand according to its own merits.

Grace, Lia and Sky are the three children of a couple who rule through isolation, dogged conviction, and physical and psychological torment. They are being raised apart from the rest of humanity, and live in a crumbling manor by a forest that contains a sturdy fence against the outside world on one side, and a wide expanse of water on another. Occasional bloated human bodies wash up, or pieces of bodies; their provenance unknown. When a bloodstained shoe is swept in they bury it in the forest. The sisters observe the gentle lapping of the current from an upstairs window, as well as its macabre offerings, with a studied detachment.

Their father, King, has died, and the girls hold ambiguous thoughts about this. In a way, it is the shape of him left behind that is the more comforting alternative for them than his actual everyday presence. Nevertheless, they are struck by grief as a new sensation, and turn to insomnia tablets and home remedies to try to rid their bodies of emotions and feelings: those "limping, wretched things". They dream of boxes filled with boxes filled with small trapdoors. As their parents have taught them, women are the weaker sex because of how much they feel, and therefore must take part in "games" and therapies designed to make them stronger. Some of these methods mean pitting one sister against another, or of heaping cruelty upon oneself in order to spare another.

Their mother maintains her harshness and abuse as the unquestioned leader of this small band of followers upon the patriarch's death, stitching and scalding them. Her methods vary, yet her control is unwavering. They have fainting sacks, and sit enclosed in saunas until they lose consciousness, sweating out those dreaded emotions. Other therapies include coughing out all feeling into muslin shoved into their mouths, scream therapy, and being held under water until near breaking point.

The girls hold memories of a different time, when women would come to the family home for healing. The mainland is a place of abuse, subjugation, and violence towards women, they are lectured. However, these women and whatever may have since befallen them seem to be in the past. The mattresses in now-abandoned rooms lie "naked and fleshy" on their frames. The daily patterns of the four remaining females is predictable enough, until one day a band of men turns up. They are gaunt; their eyes "shadowed holes on their heads".

Suddenly the balance of power is altered as threat and suspicion rule. This impacts even on the loyalty of the family members, and the mother maintains, as she has always believed, that in the end her daughters will kill her; that daughters are "hard-wired for betrayal". What are the men there for, from where have they come? The men may very well inquire the same of the women.

Sophie Mackintosh is a Welsh writer in her late 20s, based in London. This is her debut novel, which powerfully mixes poetic prose with themes and imagery as bloody as they are dark. Much is left to supposition as the family of women operates in an alternative domestic capsule. While they claim (or reclaim) their agency, one cannot help but feel that since their pain is psychological, there may be no salvation for them.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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