As an English Literature student, it has always felt so unfeasible to answer that daunting, cruel question. The question that everyone asks and no one likes to answer:
“What is your favourite book?”.
In the past, I had always manufactured some false answer or changed the subject or listed the first few titles that popped into my head. But now, that question is no longer an impossible task or a momentous challenge. I can finally provide a truthful answer.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh.
“I would take my strange and incapable heart out of my chest if I could, display it, absolve myself of responsibility.”
The novel tells the story of three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky, who grow up in an abandoned, isolated hotel on a strange island, its territory entirely unknown. The girls call their father ‘King’ and their mother remains nameless throughout. King is a figure that reminds me of Prospero: a father-figure that is callous and controlling but also bewitching. He claims that he keeps the girls on the island to ensure they’re safe and protected from the outside. He establishes that there is a peculiar plague on the nearby mainland that, among various other things, makes women allergic to the touch of men. During the girls’ youth, ‘damaged’ women arrive at the hotel to be healed from their interactions with men, hysterical and desperate to be cured. ‘The Water Cure’ is just one of the many therapies employed by King to cleanse these women of the toxicities of such trauma and feelings and thoughts. Others include ‘Scream Therapy’, solitary confinement and bizarre creative projects.
One day, when their father sails to the mainland to pick up food and supplies and does not return, everything starts to change for the girls. Two men and a young boy appear on the beach, washed up on the shore, and the sisters have to relearn everything they have been taught.
Nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2018, it is not a shock that this novel is breath-taking. But, it surpassed all of my expectations. It is hypnotic and eerily uncanny. It is grotesque and absorbing. It is lyrical and abstract. It is dreamlike and evocative.
I particularly love how the narrative perspective alters throughout the text, shifting between the distinctive voices of the sisters and sometimes treating the reader to all of their voices crying out in heartfelt unison. It is almost like a Greek chorus, but one that actively reverses the male gaze rather than reinforces it. In between chapters, Mackintosh also includes short fragments of poignant, and sometimes harrowing, speech from the ‘damaged’ women who used to stay in the hotel and found themselves psychologically imprisoned in the sanctuary, further engrossing the reader into the bizarre, uncanny, horrifying world of her creation.
In order to garner such an intoxicating, visceral, humid atmosphere within her writing, Mackintosh has described how she created Spotify playlists to ensure her mind was in the correct headspace, utilising music to inspire thoughts. It is no wonder, then, that the prose can seem, at times, like lyrics from a song. The metaphorical language reads like poetry, words drifting off the page with such fluency and ease. I don’t think I have ever read a book so expressive, figurative and melodious before.
Inspired by Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop and the Welsh myths she was read in her childhood, the book is drenched in the nostalgia of adolescence, dripping in vulnerability, idealised love, romanticised suffering and fanciful dreams. The cultish, ritualistic aspects of the girls’ childhood are haunting and particularly gothic, exemplifying Mackintosh’s fascination with the macabre and magic realism.
Yet, despite the obvious uncanny nature of the story, I’m dispirited when I see critics’ reviews immediately aligning the novel with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or just generally labelling The Water Cure as belonging to the genre of feminist dystopia. This novel doesn’t fit into a category- it is far too opaque and startlingly different from anything I have read to be categorised in such a way. It reads more like a disturbing, grown-up fairy-tale that tears apart any expectations the reader may have and it is frustrating to see people completely dismiss its versatility. Sophie Mackintosh’s writing almost deserves a new genre in its own right- it is so fresh and startlingly discernible.
Mackintosh’s new book, Blue Ticket, comes out in June and I honestly cannot wait to see what she produces next. I just know that it will be fresh, daring and evocative and I wish I could get my hands on a copy immediately. I’m counting down the days…