This is an incredibly powerful story and I'm not sure how Sophie Mackintosh managed to carry it off in such a slender book. I enjoy dystopian fiction but I haven't read one in a long time which has had this impact - perhaps not since I read The Road, which is a very different book. The discomfort both authors left me in is similar, though.
We follow the lives of three sisters and their mother who inhabit an island off the mainland. The mainland is full of toxins and danger and society has broken down to such an extent only King, the father (who is features only briefly and is then discussed through reminiscences), is able to travel there, for supplies. He wears a protective white suit to help him avoid contamination and there are rituals carried out when he returns to re-purify him. If anything washes up on the shore of this island the mother takes it upon herself to salt and burn whatever it is in order to kill any toxins the object may have brought with them. It is on one of these supply runs that King goes missing; only a bloody boot is washed up as a clue of what might have happened to him.
The story is told from the perspectives of Grace, Lia and Sky and we are shown the intricacies of the sisters' relationships with each other, their mother and their father. When King has died the mother and her daughters have no other option but to fend for themselves until one day two men and a boy wash up on the shore - alive. These visitors are fended off and told to stay on the beach without food or water while the mother figures out what to do with them. They are slowly allowed into the house in which the women live and the men and boy witness the rituals and therapies the women undertake to keep themselves physically, emotionally and spiritually safe. These therapies are tantamount to torture. There are therapies where the daughters are sown into hessian sacks and left in the sun to sweat it out (I'm not sure what 'it' is), there are therapies where they have to prove their love for their sisters by doing something against their better nature to protect their sister from doing it and being hurt. Would you kill a harmless living creature so your sibling wouldn't have to just to prove you love them? Try doing this at the behest of your parents! No words.
The chapters alternate perspective which I always enjoy. Grace is the oldest sister and her chapters address her father. She is also pregnant before the visitors arrive...you can figure that out for yourselves. Lia's chapters are in the first person so we can see everything from her perspective. She is a tortured soul who self harms and cuts herself in order to feel a connection with reality. It's her opportunity to find control. The depiction of Lia's self harming is unflinching and normalised and accepted in the story, as her sisters pretend not to notice her new wounds or old scars. I find it interesting that the chapters from the points of view of Grace, Lia and Sky never give Sky her own voice. She is seen as the baby but as the story progresses we become aware that these aren't teenage girls and they have been kept in a juvenile state for many years.
There were a couple of very emotional scenes involving children where I had to set the book down and make a cup of tea just to break out of the story. Mackintosh's writing has a wonderful way of holding me right there in the moment with the characters. The prose is beautiful and lyrical but also sparse at times.
So, what of these visitors? What usually happens when women and men remain together in close confines? Relationships and frustration ensue but they are explored in a way that is realistic to the situation the characters are in. As the story moves on we see who the real threats are and there is violence and a fight for survival and an unravelling of what the characters believe is the truth of their existence. I came away from this reminded of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks although I found this infinitely more readable and relatable. Not sure what that says about me. Banks' novel is haunting and disturbing but on another level. The Water Cure dabbles in the waters of depravity but is ultimate a story of survival.
It is not, as I have seen on Goodreads a novel about women who hate men. It is a novel of indoctrination and belief and love. I would recommend this again and again. I will be seeking out more of Mackintosh's writing and look forward to reading her future works. The Water Cure has certainly left a lasting impression on me.