If you and your children survived an apocalypse, how would you raise them to be safe in what remains of the world? On its surface, Sophie Mackintosh’s remarkable “The Water Cure” is a post-apocalyptic story in which the three adult daughters — Grace, Lia and Sky — of parents known as King and Mother have found shelter on a tiny island after a catastrophe turns the mainland into a toxic chemical stew. The daughters came to the island as children but no longer have any sense of how long they have been there.
The sisters have been raised to believe that unmanageable emotions, especially those of men, led to the chemical destruction of the mainland. Men’s uncontrolled feelings and the violence they provoke continues to be the greatest threat to the small family of survivors, and so the parents use daily exercises to associate negative physical sensations — mostly pain — with their children’s emotional responses. After Lia cries, for example, she is compelled to submerge her hands in ice water long past the point of pain and numbness. At the start of the book, each daughter takes turns narrating, describing the various rituals used to purify them. The most extreme of these measures is referred to as the water cure.
Early in the story, King fails to return from a trip to the mainland to glean equipment and food supplies from the ruined world. After days of waiting, the women accept that he has been killed — and that is when the grief kicks in. Mother panics at her daughters’ extreme reactions to this loss and drugs her daughters, keeping them unconscious for a week. Afraid that her girls will be broken by this dangerous emotion, Mother invents a new therapy to cleanse them of their sadness.
“Mother told us about these kinds of energies,” Lia says. “Especially dangerous for women, our bodies already so vulnerable in ways that the bodies of men are not.”
Keeping her daughters pure becomes more difficult after a tempestuous storm washes up two men and a young boy. At this point, Lia takes over the narrative through journal entries in which she apprises her dead father of all that transpires. Lia now understands the “emergency” that King and Mother had been preparing their girls for since the beginning: contact with other survivors, especially men. She also recognizes that without King, “we have become softer already, worn by the burden of vigilance.”
Mother and King have brought up their children to resist any potential feelings that could make them vulnerable to men’s violence, just as modern-day rape culture assigns blame to victims based on what they were wearing, what they were drinking, where they were walking and when. Victims are told that they could have prevented assault by following certain rules. Through the story of this family, Mackintosh delves into the question of whether it makes sense to put the onus on women to keep themselves safe in a dangerous world.
Mother allows the men to stay temporarily, although she warns them that if they touch her daughters, she will kill them. Lia, meanwhile, becomes fascinated by the way men inhabit their bodies in alien ways. She contrasts her own body — which she has learned to treat as a discrete, closed unit — with the body of one of the men.
“There is a fluidity to his movements, despite his size, that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing,” she thinks, “and I wonder what that must be like, to know that your body is irreproachable.”
Lia will also acknowledge that despite all the forced training, she feels an overwhelming need to be touched. When she acts on her craving, she sets in motion a chain of events that will test whether “the water cure” has provided the daughters with the tools to withstand the horrors caused by human desire.
Mackintosh seamlessly weaves together the themes of Shakespeare — the harsh, overprotective fathers from “The Tempest” and “King Lear” — with the very modern issue of toxic masculinity. Theories drawn from French feminism are also present. Julia Kristeva argued in “Powers of Horror” that communities maintain their cohesion by the designation of a “pollution” that must be rejected by the group’s members. The rituals that hold the group together are designed to cleanse the community of any contact with the forbidden. In this case, that poison is literal, demonstrated by a ravaged land, polluted by the emotions men are unable to process.
King and Mother take draconian measure to create a world in which women can be safe. But, as it happens in our own culture, that illusion of safety can only be maintained if women are willing to accept constricted lives in virtual prisons where men cannot touch them.
Lorraine Berry has written about books for the Guardian and Salon, among other outlets.
By Sophie Mackintosh
Doubleday. 288 pp. $25.95.