Man Booker 2018: The Water Cure

18th September 2018

The Water Cure, Sophie Mackintosh

Penguin Random House, Hamish Hamilton

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

After some largely unspecified environmental catastrophe (indeed, for much of the novel it’s not clear, really, whether this has actually taken place or whether the potential threat from the outside world is an abusive fantasy) three sisters live in the ultimate of dysfunctional families. They are alone now with their mother; their father, significantly named King, is absent from the start of the book (the opening line is ‘Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing’) but his presence is pervasive. Their life is no easier for his loss.

‘Imagine a world very close to our own,’ says the flyleaf, ‘where women are not safe in their bodies, where desperate measures are required to raise a daughter. This is the story of Grace, Lia and Sky, kept apart from the world for their own good and taught the terrible things that every woman must learn about love.’ It’s not only the sisters who suffer as a result of this curious world view. Women from the mainland, who have suffered at the hands of men, come to be cured by an odd mixture of ceremonial rites and cruel endurance tests: the girls watch, and also participate.

It’s dystopian, of course, but it’s more – or less – than that. It exposes powerfully the psychological effects of isolation; the complicated intricate cruelties that underpin the relationships between the three young women as a result of the mind games and challenges (‘strange experiments with our hearts’) that their parents have forced upon them. It’s the ultimate in coercive control, calling to mind Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ and Gabriel Tallent’s ‘My Absolute Darling’ as much as ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, to which it has been frequently compared. It’s not an easy read, and it gets no easier when two men and a young boy are washed up on the shore; their very presence disturbs the uneasy peace. The heart of the reader, as well as of the girls, is in the mouth. The intrusion of an outside world or outside agents into an idyll, even a flawed idyll, is one of the oldest plot-lines in the book, but nonetheless bewitching for all that. The pacing is uneven here, but Mackintosh handles the material convincingly.

The story is narrated in turn by one or other of the older sisters, or by all three together, adopting one communal voice. It creates a patchwork of writing that is both languid and stifling, a novel that is both rooted in a practical reality – Mackintosh has a powerfully visceral command of physicality – and eerie metaphorics that echo round your head while you’re away from it. It’s not a great novel – her themes, ideas and preoccupations don’t quite coagulate as they might – but it’s evident that she is a talented writer. This, her debut, might not be the book that will make her name, but a name she will almost certainly have.

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