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from the perspective of the monsters: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

By Leon Craig.

‘You girls are a new and shining kind of woman … there has never been anyone like you in the world.’

Grace, Lia and Sky have been subject to an array of bizarre “cures” and “treatments” inflicted on them by their hyper-cautious, disciplinarian parents, referred to as King and Mother. The women on the mainland are sick with a mysterious illness; their bodies suffer painful reactions to some kind of toxin carried by the men. In the past, women came to King and Mother on the island to be cured, but now they have stopped coming. King and Mother have tried to ensure than the girls will never end up in the same pitiful state as those mainland women. They teach the girls that ‘feelings are especially dangerous for women, our bodies so vulnerable in ways that the bodies of men are not’. The girls are forced to burn themselves, to throw frogs into the fire and watch, to lie still and not struggle while drowning in weighted dresses. Their affections for each other are reshuffled every year by the drawing of iron lots and one of them must always go without. Their parents set them against one another. The girls are indoctrinated into insensitivity; only as monsters could they possibly thrive in the world of men, ‘body and mind equipped for survival.’ In her brilliant essay on monstrosity in contemporary fiction, Katie Goh describes how the girls become monstrous when they break free from ‘coded femininity,’ but one could also argue that the monstrous version of femininity they have been taught as precisely what has made them so dangerous. Over the course of The Water Cure the three sisters’ disconnection from common humanity is transformed from a painful necessity into an act of solidarity and even joy.

Not long after the girls are informed that King has died, three strange men wash up on the beach: James, Lllew and Gwil, who is Llew’s prepubescent son. The men are permitted to stay in the house and Mother soon disappears on a long trip to the mainland in the boat. The men think they can easily gain the trust of three sheltered young girls, little realising they would have been better off picking on the Gorgons themselves. Most of the story is told by Lia, the middle sister, who was supposed to be the one ‘without love’ that year. She begins an affair with Llew and finds that despite her training, she is unable to control herself around him. No amount of affection Llew can give her could possibly be enough. The sisters cannot interact normally with Llew’s son Gwil. Telling themselves that ‘we are not monsters. We are not trying to pull him apart. We are just women who want to understand,’ they ask Gwil over and over about his mother, until he runs away and is stung to death by hornets. The other man, James, tries to tell Grace that King is alive and has asked him to collect the girls. He is unable to fathom why King’s creations might not feel much affection for him. After Grace has dealt with James, Lia entraps Llew and kills him too. The book ends with the sisters leaving Llew’s body in full view on the beach, then retreating together into the thick forest that lies behind the house.

Appropriately for a story from the point of view of the monsters, The Water Cure feels intriguingly ahistorical, focusing on primal concerns like love, familial authority and violence and evading temporal and geographic specificity. The girls eat food which comes in tins and King’s boat has an outboard motor, but that does not help an inquisitive reader to narrow things down between the mid-twentieth century and some disastrous future time. The toxins of which King and Mother speak could be literal toxins from a climate disaster, or the metaphorical sickness of ingrained societal misogyny. The men’s names suggest that the island may be near Wales. But we cannot even be certain that the island is really an island; James tries to tell Grace it’s just a beach cut off from the rest of the land by the forest. The message the girls seek to leave with Llew’s body is that ‘this is no place.’ The chthonic battle between girls and men plays out neither in utopia nor in dystopia, but simply off the map, in another world where the girls don’t have to be part of humanity if they choose not to.

The book is breathtakingly bold in its rewriting of the myths women get told over and over again: your parents never meant to hurt you, the men are coming to save you, you’ll love the baby when it’s here. Just as the girls refashion personalities they can live with out of the temperaments created by their parents’ abuse, so The Water Cure refashions truths out of abusive truisms: even if your parents thought they were being kind, they still hurt you; the men’s version of saving you will kill you; the love that you can spare is sometimes not enough. Denial is peeled away, layer by layer, until the girls cannot un-know the things they have always known, deep down. Grace’s stillborn child was the product of incest: ‘No more babies… they never came from the sea, of course.’ Mother never left the island: ‘broken planks and fibreglass reveal themselves, painted white and red, the vicious edge of a motor…someone must have buried them.’ There is a reason the mainland women stopped coming for their water cure: ‘the falling woman was not the first death. I do not know if my sisters remember the woman who never raised her head from the basin.’ The girls’ lack of socialisation prevents them from fully internalising the conventional versions of the myths they would need to believe in to thrive on the mainland. James’s attempt to plead with Grace in a manner that might work on normal girls is risible. While interrogating him about the wider world, she asks ‘but you can’t deny that men are killing women?’ and James can only reply ‘Well no, I can’t. But it’s not like you think.’ and later when she tells him ‘We will not go… You don’t know what kind of man he is.’ James’s limp response is ‘I do… Oh believe me, I do. And I’m sorry.’ His belief in the myth that girls are naturally weak and docile proves fatal.

Like the man who breeds vipers and is surprised to find himself bitten, King did not
anticipate the girls could outgrow his control. He taught them how to cut their own throats, if need be, and when Grace uses this skill on James rather than on herself, she addresses her father in her head: ‘There were men who naturally caused great harm. It is built into them. You had warned us. You are one, though you would never admit it.’ But the twisted upbringing King gave them is the same thing that enables them to break free from his control. What separates the monsters they were intended to be by King and the monsters they have fashioned themselves into by the end of the book is that alongside their brutal clear-headedness, the sisters have preserved their intense love for and loyalty towards one other. ‘The marks are imprinted on our bodies. We cannot lay down all of that. We wouldn’t want to, despite the ways we have been changed. Love still glows at the centre of our being.’

The Water Cure draws together a number of important conversations about gender, power and freedom while managing to maintain an enigmatic starkness. This is a defiant, inventive debut which will stay with the reader for a long time after.


Leon Craig is a writer of short fiction and criticism based in London. Her work has been published in/on the TLSReview 31Storgy.comQueen Mob’s TeahouseFlight journal and others. She is the co-editor of Thousand: An Anthology of Very Short Fiction, published by Brainchild Festival. At present, Leon is finishing her short story collection.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 26th, 2018.