Booker-nominated author earns praise for dystopian debut novel
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.”
“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.”
Author Sophie Mackintosh says feminism has to play a role in any story about women and the world they live in.