LIT­ER­ALLY TOXIC?

Booker-nom­i­nated au­thor earns praise for dystopian de­but novel

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Books - JAMIE PORT­MAN

When you ask So­phie Mack­in­tosh what led her into the strange and scary world of her de­but novel, The Water Cure, she strug­gles for an an­swer that will sat­isfy her.

She has this need for self-anal­y­sis. In­deed, she still seems in­cred­u­lous over the fact that, at 29, she was one of the youngest writ­ers ever to be nom­i­nated for Bri­tain’s cov­eted Booker Prize.

But she is firm about one thing. The Water Cure — now pub­lished in Canada by Hamish Hamil­ton, eight months af­ter a rap­tur­ously re­ceived launch­ing in the U.K. — is not anti-male. Def­i­nitely not.

True, it presents us with a dystopian world, set in a not-too-dis­tant fu­ture when men have lit­er­ally be­come toxic to women. “But I hope it’s not seen as a man-hat­ing book,” she says. “The women in it aren’t per­fect ei­ther.”

Still, the book was fu­elled by her anger over the strug­gle of women to sur­vive in what she per­ceives as a pa­tri­ar­chal world. The Water Cure may not have won the 2018 Booker — that went to Anna Burns for Milk­man — but it did trig­ger a seven-way bid­ding frenzy among pub­lish­ers and earned com­par­isons with Mar­garet At­wood’s The Hand­maid’s Tale.

The novel did not have an easy birth. Mack­in­tosh stum­bled at the be­gin­ning by try­ing to write a postapoc­a­lyp­tic thriller about a fam­ily try­ing to sur­vive on an oil rig.

“It was more ac­tion-packed, more rooted in re­al­ity,” she tells Post­media. “But I kept go­ing off on these strange tan­gents.”

She has ar­rived punc­tu­ally for her in­ter­view, set­tling her­self in the lounge of a Blooms­bury ho­tel, de­clin­ing to or­der cof­fee or tea, and ad­mit­ting she’s ner­vous. But if she is on edge, per­haps it’s due to a con­tin­u­ing un­cer­tainty over the forces that led to the cre­ation of this novel. When she refers to these “strange tan­gents” lead­ing her off her orig­i­nal path, what does she mean?

Well, for one thing, she was be­ing nudged into a world in which women were be­ing af­flicted with a fright­en­ing sick­ness.

“So I took a step back and thought that maybe there was some­thing else hap­pen­ing here,” Mack­in­tosh re­mem­bers. In­creas­ingly, she be­came ob­sessed with the idea of a “toxic mas­culin­ity” tak­ing over the planet.

The novel that fi­nally emerged presents a world in which cli­mate change has reached cri­sis lev­els and mas­culin­ity is es­sen­tially toxic to women. That’s the mes­sage drilled into the im­pres­sion­able minds of three sis­ters — Grace, Lia and Sky — who have been raised on a re­mote is­land, safe from the dan­gers of men on the main­land. Their par­ents, King and Queen, sub­ject them to bizarre forms of “love ther­apy” to pre­pare them for vi­o­lence by men should their sanc­tu­ary be in­vaded. Hence, the so-called water cure — which in­volves purg­ing and near-drown­ing — as a process of cleans­ing and redemp­tion.

The story en­ters some dark places that be­come even darker when three males — one of them a boy — are washed ashore and into the lives of three sis­ters who have been taught that any con­tact with men may sicken and kill them.

The novel, the work of an ex­quis­ite stylist, as­sumes the tex­ture of a dream­scape as it moves to­ward its dev­as­tat­ing con­clu­sion.

“I def­i­nitely wanted it to have this eerie kind fairy-tale feel, this feel of a fa­ble,” says Mack­in­tosh, a fan of the re­vi­sion­ist fan­tasy fic­tion of the late An­gela Carter. Yet, the novel is fu­elled by anger — a young au­thor’s anger over the state of her own world.

“This book is pre-#metoo, preBrexit and pre-trump,” she says. “But there was al­ready this ris­ing con­cern over vi­o­lence against women. It just seemed there was more of it around me. It was start­ing to feel nor­mal, and I didn’t want it to feel nor­mal.”

In an ear­lier in­ter­view, Mack­in­tosh talked about her ac­cel­er­at­ing aware­ness of hav­ing to live and nav­i­gate her way through a pa­tri­ar­chal cul­ture. And the tox­i­c­ity of the world she de­picts in The Water Cure is due to the “poi­sonous” ef­fect of pa­tri­archy.

But how real is this poi­son? On this is­land, the very idea of mas­culin­ity is so dan­ger­ous that the girls are told they can best pro­tect them­selves by dress­ing in white and wear­ing muslin over their mouths.

“I wanted am­bi­gu­ity,” says Mack­in­tosh, who cites the book and movie Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock, about the un­ex­plained dis­ap­pear­ance of Aus­tralian school­girls, as a ma­jor in­flu­ence.

At­wood has hailed The Water Cure as “a grip­ping, sin­is­ter fa­ble.” The Guardian news­pa­per calls it “an ex­tra­or­di­nary, oth­er­worldly de­but.” And this from the 2018 Booker panel of judges: “The taut­ness and ten­sion of the writ­ing are stag­ger­ing.”

But the ques­tion lingers. How did

The Water Cure So­phie Mack­in­tosh Hamish Hamil­ton

these con­cerns lead Mack­in­tosh to this par­tic­u­lar fic­tional place? She fi­nally an­swers by talk­ing about her own emo­tions at the time.

“I was very ob­sessed with this world, very in­volved. It sort of ex­ploded and it came very eas­ily.”

Yet in the next breath, she talks of the “pain” of writ­ing about themes that were im­por­tant to her. “You worry about be­ing mis­in­ter­preted and mis­con­strued. You have these ques­tions. Is the book valu­able? Am I say­ing the right thing ? Will peo­ple hate it? Will it help peo­ple?”

At the time, she still had a full­time job and fig­ures she was be­com­ing a pretty im­pos­si­ble hu­man be­ing as a re­sult.

“I wrote be­fore work and af­ter work and in my lunch hour and all week­end. I was tired all the time. I didn’t see my friends for months. I live with my part­ner, and I wasn’t very good to live with while I was writ­ing.”

Mack­in­tosh her­self grew up in Wales in a large and close fam­ily. “I don’t come from any­thing like the fam­ily in the book,” she says. But she re­lates to the three sis­ters. “I look at the things that girls think about and how to be safe in the world …”

Her voice trails off.

“Even when I was writ­ing this and feel­ing an­gry and scared, my fe­male friends and fam­ily gave me hope for things be­ing bet­ter,” she says af­ter a mo­ment. “If you’re writ­ing about women and the world they’re liv­ing in, fem­i­nism has to come into it.” But Mack­in­tosh, hon­est to the end, is strug­gling to be more pre­cise.

“I wasn’t writ­ing a fem­i­nist man­ual,” she says fi­nally. “It’s just a strange lit­tle story about three sis­ters.”

JAE C. HON/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

“This book is pre-#metoo, pre-brexit and pre-trump,” au­thor So­phie Mack­in­tosh says of her de­but novel The Water Cure. “But there was al­ready this ris­ing con­cern over vi­o­lence against women. It was start­ing to feel nor­mal, and I didn’t want it to feel nor­mal.”

SO­PHIE DAVID­SON

Au­thor So­phie Mack­in­tosh says fem­i­nism has to play a role in any story about women and the world they live in.

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