Grace, Lia and Sky live in an abandoned hotel, on a sun-bleached island, beside a poisoned sea. Their parents raised them there to keep them safe, to make them good. The world beyond the water is contaminated and men are the contamination. But one day three strangers wash ashore – men who stare at the sisters hungrily, helplessly. Men who bring trouble.
Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.
The Water Cure is a novel about three sisters. They live in an abandoned hotel on an island with their parents, although the novel opens with the death of their father, King. The reader is given little information about their circumstances – why they live in a hotel or the reason for their isolation – but soon learns that the world is a toxic place, rife with contamination, and that men equal danger. Through these sisters – Grace, Lia, and Sky – we learn about the strange rituals they’ve adopted and the cruel therapies forced upon them by their parents without fully understanding the purpose of them. I couldn’t help but think of a cult as I was reading – the rules and the controlling behaviour of the sisters’ parents is certainly suggestive of such a scenario, although it’s never referred to as such. Like much of the novel, the ambiguity around their lives is open to interpretation and Mackintosh leaves it to the reader to infer what’s going on beneath the surface.
Despite his absence from the entirety of the novel, the not so subtly named King continues to be a dominant presence throughout. Their mother, unnamed and reduced to her role, attempts to keep things running after his demise, and yet their rituals soon fall by the wayside, her control on the sisters slipping, perhaps as King’s control over her wanes? The sisters themselves come across as vague and indistinct – there’s little to differentiate them, and throughout they seem ignorant, not fully understanding their situation or knowing how to question it, or even that they should question it, again reinforcing the idea of cult for me with knowledge clearly being withheld. While this can be frustrating for the reader, I found it intriguing, and read on wanting to know more about their situation, even though it wasn’t entirely clear whether more information and would be forthcoming.
The setting of the novel feels dystopian or possibly post-apocalyptic in nature – again, that ambiguity as to the situation – but their island seems to be a safe haven away from whatever is going on the world and away from the contamination that they constantly guard against. The arrival of three strangers – two men and a boy – upsets the status quo, particularly as these strangers seem to be neither contaminated nor to pose any immediate threat as the sisters have been led to believe. This immediately prompts questions – who are they, where have they come from, how did they get to the island – and the reader can feel the power shifting as the sisters find themselves intrigued by the men and what it means for their situation, with Lia in particular forming an attachment to one of the new arrivals.
I didn’t know anything about power, or love, or taking what you can just because you can.
Throughout, I felt that this was a novel about toxic masculinity – the toxicity made almost literal in some respects – and the way in which women protect and guard themselves and each other. This seems to be one of the few positive things that the sisters have been taught – to love each other, and even to suffer so that another sister doesn’t have to. For me, the message of the story is ultimately that women have the power to save themselves, through education and through support for each other, and that The Water Cure is a metaphor for the feminist movement. It is vague though – there’s a lot that is left to the reader to interpret, and the sisters do come across as victims for the majority of the novel – I can see why some readers have been on the fence about the meaning behind the novel.
The Water Cure is an ambiguous, dreamlike novel that I found to be utterly compelling despite the lack of clarity in places. I expect that the style of it won’t suit everyone, but if you’re intrigued by the premise, as I was, I’d encourage you to give it a go.