Like many others, I first became interested in this book when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018. It sounded like an interesting story and I’m always intrigued by feminist dystopian fiction. I never actually bought it though because, as is always the case, I had far too much to read first. I then got a copy in a book subscription box that I used to get. It wasn’t a great subscription all round but this was definitely a highlight. The book has spent the last year or so on my shelf waiting to be read. Why did I decide to read it now? I wanted the excuse to experiment with water in some photos. I’ve had worse reasons for picking up a book but this isn’t exactly my finest hour. I was still interested but I’d also heard mixed things about Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel. I guess that I had to find out for myself.
These days, it seems as though you can get away with a lot once you label a book as a “feminist dystopia”. I wonder if this book would have made it onto the 2018 Booker longlist without those words? It’s not that I disliked Sophie Mackintosh’s novel but I certainly found it lacking. As I have with most contemporary feminist dystopian fiction. Everyone wants to write the next Handmaid’s Tale but very few people can. Hell, even Margaret Atwood failed to recapture the brilliance in her sequel. It’s such an oversaturated genre that it’s tricky to find a new angle, so you just end up rehashing the same old thing. If you don’t find an interesting and captivating way to present your story then it just falls flat. Unfortunately, I don’t think The Water Cure was an interesting way to explore gender and patriarchal conditioning.
For one thing, all of the big twists are easy to spot from the outset. There are signposts all over the place, which makes the third part of the book incredibly redundant. When you leave the last section of your novel to make your mind-blowing reveal, you probably shouldn’t have made it easy enough to work out a few chapters in. Then there’s the fact that the story just isn’t told in a very engaging way. The narrative is slow and I don’t think the world-building was particularly effective. You never really get a good enough sense of these characters and their situation. Instead, it just feels a bit repetitive and pointless. You’re watching a lot of cliched people doing the kind of things that they’ve done in so many similar novels. Oh, but this time there’s water.
I actually enjoyed the fact that Sophie Mackintosh brought in a bit of history by including the water cure. However, I feel like she really missed an opportunity to push it further. Water is such an interesting element in that we need it to survive yet it has the power to be so deadly. It just feels like the book could have pushed this further to make the novel a bit more unsettling and powerful. For me, the end result just didn’t go far enough. Instead, it fell into the same trap as many others and lacked depth. The message of the novel just gets lost in all of the mistreatment of women. This isn’t a book that is concerned with making a unique and important message about gender equality. It’s just a book that wants to show men torturing women. That’s what feminist dystopia has come to mean these days.
Yes, there is some attempt to show women taking control of their own destiny and there is an attempt to speak about the dangers of the patriarchy. It’s just all a little clumsy. I know people have been praising the idea of literal toxic masculinity but it just didn’t work for me. At least how it was used here. The Water Cure was just disappointing because I think Mackintosh writes really well. Some of the descriptions are beautiful and the way the girls talk to each other is great. Having grown up in an isolated community, their language is naïve and compelling. There’s no denying that Mackintosh’s prose is luscious and vivid. It’s just the story that doesn’t work for me. I was never captivated by it. I think I get what she was aiming for but it didn’t quite hit the mark.
There are plenty of elements in the story that interested me but they were brushed aside. I’d have like to see more of their relationship with King instead of hearing about it from memories. The cult-like nature of their family is the main driving force for everything. Could they possibly be at more risk from the man who was supposed to be protecting them from the outside world? It would have been good to explore more of their interactions and to delve into the abuser/abused relationship a little further. Instead, that’s all rushed through at the end of the book. You never really get time to process it. In the end, The Water Cure was the same superficial story that we see time and time again. I definitely think it’s time that we get a break from feminist dystopia. At least until people remember how to write good ones.