“What must it be like, to live in a world that wants to kill you?”
This question, posed by one of the characters in “The Water Cure,” the debut novel by Welsh writer Sophie Mackintosh, seems to express the inspiration of a whole generation of women writers, the literary granddaughters of Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter, who have recently been mesmerizing readers with stories of dystopian futures fueled by climate change, pollution, pandemics and patriarchal politics.
With “The Water Cure,” which was on the longlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Mackintosh joins debut novelists Leni Zumas (“Red Clocks”), Ling Ma (“Severance”) and Naomi Alderman (“The Power”), as well as established writers such as Louise Erdrich and Joyce Carol Oates, in trying to imagine just what the hell is going to happen to us all. Generally, it is hell indeed. In Mackintosh’s version, masculinity and femininity are explicitly pitted against each other — the toxic climate and savage culture of men has burgeoned unchecked, creating an environment in which women can barely survive.
A man named King attempts to protect his wife and daughters by removing them to an isolated island on the other side of a poisoned sea. On a run-down estate surrounded by woods and barbed wire, he and his wife have raised three girls, Grace, Lia and Sky. King and Mother regularly administer a “water cure” and other strange, sadistic therapies to toughen and protect their daughters, and also receive parties of battered, withered women from the mainland coming in search of these treatments. “We shudder when we think of how some of the women looked when they came to us. Like they had been bled out, their skin limp. Eyes watering involuntarily, hair thinning.”
The refugees are invited to write their stories in a Welcome Book, which contains “reason after reason after reason. Testament of how men hurt women. Testament of the old world.”
“Stupid to meet a stranger, but I was still convinced by the intrinsic goodness of people. I was an innocent, and I had not been exposed to the world very much. I didn’t understand how rapidly things had changed ... that there was no longer any need for the men to hold their bodies in check or to carry on the lie that we mattered.”
“My husband left the village. My brothers left. Everyone else’s husbands, brothers, sons and fathers and uncles and nephews left too. They went in droves. They apologized for leaving. There was danger in them. They hoped that we would understand.”
These entries appear at brief intervals throughout the main narrative, which is essentially a psychological thriller about what happens to the family after King disappears, then is presumed dead. Absent their ultra-controlling yet beloved leader, the women are devastated (also, the eldest daughter Grace is mysteriously pregnant), but at first, things go fairly well. “Incidences of joy like playing hide-and-seek together, on a rare raining day. Water rinsing the walls of the house, pouring to the drains. From the tall glass doors of the ballroom we watch it pooling on the ground, and filling empty burnt-earth pots that once held small, fragrant trees.” Even in descriptions of more painful activities, there’s something Joni Mitchell-esque about the lyrical, emotional tone of the prose.
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Not long after King disappears, two men and a boy wash ashore. Though the narration in the first part of the book shifts between Grace, Lia and the three sisters as a group, from here the story is told exclusively by Lia: “Emergency has always been with us; if not present emergency then always the idea that it is coming. The ringing in the air after a loud sound has passed. The count before the thunder hits. And here, finally, is the emergency we’ve been waiting for all our lives.”
As the emotional economy of the island shifts to include the visitors, sexual longings and sibling rivalries bloom amid increasing toxicity and violence. “Part of what made the old world so terrible, so prone to destruction, was a total lack of preparation for the personal energies often called feelings,” Lia observes. “Especially dangerous for women, our bodies already so vulnerable in ways that the bodies of men are not.” Despite the near-tortures the girls have endured to cauterize such energies, they quickly burst forth.
By definition, a dystopian novel can’t really have a happy ending. But Mackintosh’s profound faith in sisterhood imbues her particular dark vision with beauty and a kind of hope.