This seems to be a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of book: literary Marmite. The omens were good. The publishers managed to get a cover blurb from Margaret Atwood, and implied that this was a new feminist classic: the Handmaid’s Tale for the next generation. It was longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize and, to give credit where it’s due, the writing is beautiful – but in the way that an art-house film is beautiful: stylised and a little self-indulgent. Hyped as a fable for the #MeToo era, this unsettling story centres on three sisters living on a remote island: Grace, Lia and Sky. They have been raised in isolation from infancy, protected from the poisonous toxins of the mainland, and treated with therapies to contain their burgeoning emotions. Complicated rituals devised by their New Age parents protect them further. But what are they being protected from? No one will explain. One day, shortly after their father disappears, they face an unprecedented threat. Two men and a boy wash up on their beach, disrupting the balance. The island’s prophylactic seclusion will never be the same again.
The girls exist in a dreamlike state of rites and customs, their lives underlaid with soft, thrumming tension, like the heavy atmosphere before a storm. They are constantly pressured to challenge their bodies’ limits, or shock their emotions into new paths. Each year, they draw lots to find out which of the other members of the family will be their ‘most-loved’ for that year. Someone always ends up with the blank, condemned to be special to no one, cut out of the warm family circle. This year it’s Lia, who already feels vicitimised. She longs for affection or physical touch from her sisters, but the rules are rules. Any failure to comply will be punished by their mother, who has developed their daily routines, in close conference with King, their father. The girls must do their exercises every morning; they must undergo ‘drowning therapy’, where they stay underwater just past the point of bearing; and ‘love therapies’, where they decide if they love one of their sisters enough to take on pain on her behalf. Strict and unchanging, these therapies dominate the girls’ lives, like the rituals of an ancient cult.
For cult this is. Grace and Lia, the eldest, remember the women who used to come to them. Men (except King) have never been welcome here, but not so long ago the women used to arrive in their boats, their eyes red-rimmed from the toxins, exhausted from the pain of having to survive in a world that weakens their very being. Their stays at the house always concluded with the ‘water cure’, a way of judging if they were strong enough to return to the world across the water. But recently, no one has come. The girls wander in the empty rooms, piling together like puppies or drifting languorously by the pool. (‘Life without our father becomes stretching, soft. Sugar melted in the pan and drawn into something new before hardening, contracting.’) Their life is in stasis. Nothing ever changes. Or at least, it hasn’t until now. For Grace is changing. Her stomach is swelling and Lia has been told that Grace has been granted a baby. She asked the sea for one, and the sea listened. Lia’s envy grows. All she wants is to be loved. Why won’t the sea give her a baby to love her? And then King leaves; and the other men arrive – Llew, James and the boy Gwil. At first, strict boundaries are drawn, the girls eyeing the men with suspicion – the men looking back with entitled curiosity. And then, when the girls’ mother disappears one day, the balance of power within this strange community starts to tip…
I think I had a strong reaction to this for several reasons. The most important is that I didn’t understand it. What is the point of this story? This is not the tale of a utopia being invaded. The girls have been told that they are protected, pure, strong, but they are clearly not. Their poor nutrition makes them unhealthy and they are prey to their parents’ cruelty and to King’s physical lusts, as Grace’s condition shows. This is more like a harem, where the man may claim to be a protector, but where in fact everything revolves around him – the womenfolk subtly jostling for his favour. (‘The photo placed ceremoniously in the lounge. No man documented. The man’s role is to make the document. The necessary curating of our lives.’) The male characters in this story are (with the exception of prepubescent Gwil) arrogant tricksters and predators. Some hide it better than others, but Mackintosh leaves us in little doubt that the same wolf-like nature hides within each and every one of them. None of them change or develop. And what of those toxins on the mainland? As I understood it, they aren’t toxins at all, but the poisonous realities of life for a woman in a man’s world. The women coming for therapy on the island were simply worn down by the oppressive domination of men, who feel entitled to use or objectify a woman’s body for their own satisfaction. The strange visitors prove to be no exception to this rule. And this is where I began to actively dislike the book.
I’m a feminist, but in the sense that I believe we need genuine equality, not in the sense that I believe all men are ‘the enemy’. And this book comes dangerously close to that. If it wants to be a consciously post-#MeToo book then, yes, I accept that some men do manipulate their power and exploit women. But not all of them: many men are caring, supportive and not exploitative (fortunately I only have men like this in my life). What are men like that – allies to women – going to think when they read a book in which their entire sex is written off as brute abusers with no grey areas? If a book depicted all women as shrill, nagging, abusing harpies, wouldn’t we women dislike it, and see it as a retrograde viewpoint? There’s too much of a trend at the moment of drawing up battle lines between men and women. Even in ‘fables’ like this, where a degree of simplicity is consistent with the literary form, it’s counterproductive. “Woman good. Man bad” is a gross oversimplification and, if that’s what this book wants to convey, then it’s doing a disservice. In our world right now, conversations on difficult subjects are becoming more and more polarised – us against them, with no place in the middle. We are destroying precisely the kind of mutual effort on common ground that we need to make in order to improve the situation. I’m not blaming this one book for all of this – but I am saying that I feel it is representative of the overall trend.
I am confused, as you can see. I felt the story was too obfuscated: a weird dreamland of tortures and incest carried out by two narcissistic parents on their chronically isolated daughters. It’s a grim picture of humanity’s capacity to harm. I felt as I sometimes feel when watching an art-house film which is meant to be a superb cinematic classic, but which I can only see as an assembly of dreamily-shot vignettes. I rather hope that I’ve got entirely the wrong end of the stick about it all. Yes, women are sometimes horribly exploited by men. Good grief, Margaret Atwood said that thirty years ago, but she said it with more nuance and allowed for the fact that not all men are villains. The Water Cure, for all its ambitions, is an unsatisfying fairy tale of abuse and thwarted identity, which, when compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, reflects the less complex times in which it was written.
Not one I gelled with. But I’m very happy if anyone wants to try to persuade me otherwise.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review