The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh review – an extraordinary otherworldly debut
Wed 23 May 2018
here is a house on an island, alone by the sea. Inside live three girls, Grace, Lia and Sky, with their parents Mother and King. Outside, beyond the sea and the horizon, there is a “toxin‑filled world”. To understand what toxins are, and indeed for their knowledge of everything else, the girls have always deferred to King. Their world is complete. And then, one day, he is gone.The title of Sophie Mackintosh’s extraordinary debut novel, The Water Cure, refers to one of the many immunising cruelties King has devised for the girls. They are sewn into “fainting sacks” and “drowning dresses”; they keep muslin pressed to their mouths like masks. Now, in his afterglow, Mother is a surviving queen consort. She honours tradition. One morning she orders a “love therapy” on the beach, in which Lia, on Sky’s behalf, is forced to kill a mouse and then a toad. The ritual sparks an electric charge between sisters, down pathways drawn by King.His legacy is the real toxin: a trauma that forces its victims to go on playing it out.
One day, three men wash up on their beach: two adults, one boy. Mother ineffectually pulls her girls away, tries to frighten the visitors, but before long, the old King Lear setup – a patriarch’s sole claim on filial love – is going sideways. James and Llew, the elder pair, lay claim to the house, then start to reach for the women’s bodies. “The men,” thinks Lia, “do not live lightly on our territory.” Like her sisters, Lia is afraid, remembering King’s warning that men can “break your arm without thinking”, but fear is electric, too, and she is prey to her own desires. Soon Llew is upon her, in her bed. Meanwhile, Mother vanishes, too.
Mackintosh won the 2016 White Review short story prize with “Grace”, a piece of calm and chilling prose. Now, in The Water Cure, she is writing the way that Sofia Coppola would shoot the end of the world: everything is luminous, precise, slow to the point of dread. For much of the novel, trapped in three oblique heads, you struggle with King’s truths; whether there really are toxins out there, or lethal men, or crises of love.
And then they understand. The father’s world, built around what Lia calls his “strange experiments with our hearts”, is like Lear’s – one in which a man fears losing control. Only without male constraints can these girls start to see themselves “new and shining”. The Water Cure, then, isn’t just otherworldly. Doesn’t every dark fantasy expose the parts of real life we’d rather not confront?
- The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99).