THE WATER CURE
By Sophie Mackintosh
269 pp. Doubleday. $25.95.
In most apocalyptic tales, the reader is expected to accept certain baseline assumptions. The first is that the apocalypse is real; the second, that the story’s main characters represent its truest victims. Sophie Mackintosh subverts both of these assumptions in her sumptuous yet sparsely written debut, “The Water Cure.”
On an island somewhere near a mainland, three girls grow up under the care of their father, called King, and their nameless mother. King seeks to keep them all safe from a peculiar plague that, among other things, makes women effectively allergic to men. Nearly everything in the preceding sentence is questionable, however — including the nature of King’s fatherly love, as it immediately becomes clear that his oldest daughter, Grace, is pregnant by him. This questionable love also plays out via bizarre “therapies” to which the three girls are subjected in order to purify them of unspecified toxins. The girls are kept on a strange diet and made to sweat themselves into unconsciousness in saunas, freeze their hands in buckets of ice water, hold their breath until they pass out. Knowing no better, they are willing participants; to them, this is the only safe love, given that they have been taught to fear strangers — especially men. Men other than King, that is.
In one of the cruelest therapies, the family “draws the irons,” small tokens that determine who among them is permitted to be the focus of the others’ love. Middle girl Lia is the one most often left love-deficient — which has devastating effects when King vanishes and, later, three strangers come to the island. The strangers are two adult men and a young boy, apparent refugees from whatever is happening on the mainland. When one of the men shows sexual interest in Lia, she responds with greedy desperation, and all three sisters react through the warped and violent lens of what love means to them.
So is this an apocalyptic tale of women surviving in a world that has turned strange and cruel? Perhaps more a tale of patriarchal family structures taken to an extreme — the father as both predator and god, the mother a collaborator who occasionally protects, all three daughters hovering in a limbo somewhere between cherished possessions and future concubines for the patriarch. There is also a distinctly cultlike element to the family dynamics, from the myths that both parents weave in order to maintain control, to the unquestioning relentlessness shown by Sky, the coddled youngest daughter, whenever something threatens the family home.