Two more Booker-listed novels have arrived on my pile: one I ordered and the other is from the library so that one will have to jump to the top of my list forthwith. In the meantime, I have read only one of that first trio of books, Sophie Mackintosh's The Water Cure and honestly I'm not quite sure what I think. I hoping some clarity will be revealed as I write but I also realize that is a somewhat tenuous platform on which to begin a book post.
I had read about the book before the Booker longest came out, so it was there floating somewhere on the horizons of my mind and I recognized those early reviews when I started reading the book. The phrase feminist dystopia, and comparisons to Margaret Atwood are bandied about; and I had read that the novel tells the story of three girls whose parents have fled society after some terrible disease or plague and are raising their girls separately, to protect them. But in the end I felt all these vague reassurances are more about selling the book than the book itself. Yes it is the story of three women, and yes their parents have raised them in isolation, but everything else is in question. In that sense the novel is a psychologically suspenseful mystery, but also one that, unfortunately, can come to no good end. I suppose I see shades of dystopia in the book, since the book is about a community that is slowly revealed to be truly frightening, but this community is a family, perhaps was once a cult, but that aspect seems to be in the past, and I certainly see nothing I want to call feminist in this novel; in fact I am not sure feminism is the author's intention at all.
This is a novel that lured this reader in with gorgeous, often lyrical, and sometimes hypnotic prose. As it is told from the perspective of the three women, the voices vary, and the perspectives are sometimes confusing. It is a story that both draws you in and leaves you oddly disquieted, simultaneously entrancing and disturbing.
As I mentioned earlier, the novel is told from the perspective of the three sisters: Grace, Lia, and Skye, mostly from the perspective of Lia, and very little is heard from Skye until near the end. I suppose in a sense the girls represent the three elements: Grace, earth, solid but also unyielding. She is angry, bitter, withdrawn, and at times rock hard, and almost flat in her affect, she has built a steely resolve around herself, a resolve that does not want to be broached. She is also pregnant. She of all the women in this book frightens me the most, and yet in the end, when she reveals herself far more fully, when her reserve is finally fractured and she explodes, like a volcano rising from what appeared to be an otherwise placid plain, my heart broke.
Lia, water, is the most emotional, and her emotional life is often out of control. She has endured years of abuse, all the girls have, to rid her of her emotions, but it has not taken, and yet she has therefore also never learned to control them, never learned what love is or isn't never really learned how to relate to people as people. Of course not. Who has she ever related to but her parents and her sisters? In some ways Lia makes me incredibly sad, her words are full of longing and one senses that she wants nothing but love, to be held and cuddled. She is desperate for love, and she would do anything for it. But love has always been something that is doled out piecemeal to those who obey and submit. Lia obeys and submits, but she is not broken in the obvious way that Grace is broken, her willingness to submit is a form of defiance, and she never quite finds the love she seeks. She will go further, do anything, if she thinks it will mean she will get love in return, but she doesn't really know what that means. Because she is constantly denied the affection she craves, she becomes more daring, more desperate, and therefore far more dangerous. Like water she can be calm and placid, but she can also be a raging storm or a tidal wave. She struggles with why she cannot control her emotions, yet she doesn't understand anything about them, she is simply an uncontrollable emotional force. Skye is the youngest, the most ethereal, and yes, you guessed it, the air. She is referred to the most obliquely, until the end, when much is revealed and things fall in place.
But here is the thing that I struggle with. We are told that the family has fled a great illness, that people waste away, and they have created a healing space where people come to be cured. But it is slowly revealed that the "cures" are really tortures, and the precautions the girls are taught have nothing to do with reality, with really preventing disease. They are rituals yes, often brutal rituals. But wrapping oneself in muslin, scattering salt, forced near drowning and suffocation, slicing the air with a knife, these things will not protect you from actual disease. Slowly it is revealed that the family is a cult. Yes they have fled a terrible reality, but one wonders if it is a reality that far removed from our own, or if instead people have internalized fear and anger and rage to a greater idea than we like to admit. The women who are shrinking and dying have not caught some contagious disease, but it is their fear that is eating them alive. It is as if the author has glommed onto the underbelly of our discontent of the fear and anger in society and wondered what would happen if our fear manifest itself physically as disease and death? There are hints throughout the book that the outside world is not so much devastated, no so different from our own.
Slowly it is revealed that these three girls have been removed from society to grow up in their own patriarchal cult. The father, called King, is obviously the head, although it seems to be the mother who is the most sadistic, who does most of the dirty work of forcing the girls through rituals that come dangerously close to torture. The girls, who think they are growing up to be strong, are strangely broken, and really incapable of living with other people. They are also weak, malnourished, with rotting teeth, the opposite of resilient, completely dependent on an artificial structure, and, unfortunately, on continued self negation and torture.
They are women, not girls. Skye, we learn, is 18, although she seems to behave as one much younger.. One wonders if there would have been hope for her, but the others, Lia and Grace, at 28 and 30, are probably too old to escape their pasts. In the end, a brutal end, they escape with Skye. There probably is no real hope for them other than escape; if their parents fled the world in horror to "protect" them, they must now avoid the world, because in the eyes of the world they have become horror themselves even though they had no control in their making, or unmaking. Like much of the book, there have been hints all along, hints the world is not what they think, hints that this place is not what they think, the these girls are not who we think. Grace remembers coming to the island, which is not an island after all, when she was 2 and Lia a baby. Grace tells us that Sky is 14 years younger than herself. We might think Skye, playing childishly is still quite young, but Lia tells us early on that it has been years since Skye has grown. The hints are there, like a hidden reality, floating beneath the surface. Secrets waiting to be unmasked.
I think the thing that bothers me the most is that there is no resolution here. The men come; but they are shadow men. This is not surprising because the story is told from the perspective of the sisters, and they have no concept of men except as a shadow-thing. The ending is really not surprising if one has been paying attention, but it is profoundly sad. I did not find it disturbing because it is sad; I found it disturbing because its sadness is so open-ended, as if there is no hope from dependence and destruction. It is disturbing because it reminds us how much we are shaped by our environments, the women who come to the cult hotel to be healed, believe they are damaged by their weakness and fear, and so they are. The girls who grow up in the cult are damaged even though they may believe themselves to be strong, when their weakness is revealed they have no place to escape. The women who come to be healed are damaged because they internalize their fear, believe themselves to be weak. Everyone in this novel is shaped by what they believe their world expects them to be. There is no self-actualization here, And in this world, where one believes because one is told what to believe, without question, without the ability to trust one's own perspectives and experience, without the knowledge that one can be strong in and of oneself, there is nothing but sadness and despair.
I suppose I haven't written a review that would encourage anyone to read this book. Yet I do not regret reading it. I do recommend it, but only if one is aware of what one is getting into. Sophie Macintosh seems to be trying to say something important here, and I applaud the Booker committee for recognizing this. She doesn't quite pull it off. But the novel definitely made me think, I'm not sure we can ever stop crazy people from running off and torturing their children, would that we could, but we we do really need to think about the harm we do to others in our various stereotypes and expectations. Although in a way the idea of stress causing disease and wasting seems far-fetched, I am not sure it is as far-fetched is it sounds. Perhaps I am giving Macintosh credit for being more dystopian than I originally realized, and perhaps even being feminist through an anti-feminist sort of metaphor, reminding us of the dangers of blind neglect, of acceptance of the status quo, of complacency. Perhaps I am thinking that we are really a long way from accepting each other for who and what we are, as individuals and as fellow humans on a shared path. Perhaps it is time to think about all of that.