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The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh – book review

Sophie Mackintosh: every word is stitched into place.

Sophie Mackintosh's Man Booker-longlisted, deeply creepy debut novel about an isolated family is shockingly self-assured.

I remember being a child and stumbling across a book that was different, significant. It was Lord of the Flies. The magic happened again in third form when we were assigned The Handmaid’s Tale. And when Jack Lasenby wrote Calling the Gods, I dived in for two days, emerging changed and reverent.

This is what reading The Water Cure felt like. Every word is stitched into place with care and intent. Turn the tapestry over and even the back would be neat.

It is short, timeless and, for a debut, quite shockingly self-assured: it seems like a story that has always been and will always be, and Welsh-born Sophie Mackintosh is simply the one who put it on paper.

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She tells a fable of three sisters. They grow up cloistered by their parents – “Mother” and “King” – in a dilapidated wedding-cake mansion beside the sea. They think their home is a miracle, an oasis in a world turned to poison. They remember a time when other women would come and stay, women who had been hurt by men and needed the peculiar healing this place offers. But for a long while now, it’s been just the family of five.

The sisters take turns to speak and what they reveal is deeply creepy. They are terrified of unspecified toxins that blow off the sea and encroach through the forest, and have been drilled to perform protective rituals: salting the perimeter, scorching surfaces with vinegar and bleach. They are even more terrified of men – lumps of meat, as they see them, compelled to hurt women, toxins puffing from them with every breath.

But men, it is made clear, are not the only ones capable of great cruelty. To fortify the sisters there are ‘‘therapies’’, administered mostly by Mother. One is called scream therapy. In another, the sisters are sewn into sacks and made to sit in a sauna until they faint.

“I think of the phrase ‘pain threshold’ as if it’s a vault you jump,” observes middle sister Lia.

Therapies and cleaning aside, the sisters do very little. They sew, lounge by the pool, sprawl on the wet lawn, play at drowning. Water, water everywhere: it is the great purifier, the healer.

One day, King disappears. Soon after, three men are washed up alive on the tide. Mother sounds the alarm and locks herself in a bathroom with the sisters for the night.

“Here, finally, is the emergency we have been waiting for our whole lives,” intones Lia.

Well before the men arrive, there is menace on every page. And lots and lots of muslin: the women stuff it in their mouths, wrap it around their faces, use it as protection against the toxins of men. Muslin is a fabric of babies, and domesticity – one squeezes curds through it to make cheese, or fruit to make jelly. Here, it is a clever, woman’s metaphor for truth and concealment.

Everything is white, too: the house, the clothes, the salt. This speaks to purity, of course, but it also adds to the impression left by this extraordinary book. I think of it often, and when I do I think of haze, or gauze, or deep cloudy water.

THE WATER CURE, by Sophie Mackintosh (Hamish Hamilton, $35)

This article was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.