On a small island in the middle of the sea live three girls. The first, Grace, is practical and protective. The second, Lia, is brave and loving. The third, Sky, is pure and innocent. Three sisters, set apart from a dying world, safe from it all. It might sound like a dream or a poem, but in Sophie Mackintosh’s beguiling, eerie debut novel The Water Cure, the island is real. But is the island to keep the girls safe, or to keep them prisoner?
King, the girls’ father, has created a haven to protect them from the toxicity being spread across the world. Never permitted to leave the sanctuary of the island, the girls and their mother participate in rituals and rote therapeutic behaviors to keep themselves clean. When King leaves the island for supplies and doesn’t return, the girls and their mother are left alone to wonder what happened. But then, the unthinkable happens: a boat arrives on the beach. A boat that doesn’t carry King, but three strangers, three men. The girls have never seen men before other than King. With no sign of when King might return and no idea of what these men might want, the girls and their mother must decide what to do with the strangers on their shore.
Sometimes, it’s the most human books that chill us the most. Plenty of recent books amp up the action and violence in the name of pure entertainment. Indeed, it’s the bread and butter of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. But no other book in the last year has left me feeling simultaneously frayed and mesmerized. Mackintosh is such a strong writer sentence by sentence that the reader feels an inescapable pull from the narrative. You can’t help but keep turning the page, wondering, with dread, what will happen next. One of the rituals the girls undertake is to decide who gets to be loved by the others in a given year. The others won’t return that love. It’s a twisted take on self and group preservation, and one that’s being encouraged by both mother and father. What would a trio of girls who haven’t known the outside world think of love? Is the concept of love universal? Is love owned? This is just one example of how small moments become so much larger in Mackintosh’s hands.
I think it would be a mistake to categorize this book as purely a work of science fiction. However, it would be an even larger mistake to miss such a powerful book because it didn’t have robots or time machines. In the same way that The Handmaid’s Tale and The Children of Men reflect women’s experiences back to us, The Water Cure is written in the future, but it’s about us now.