The story opens on the death of the patriarch, aptly named King. He, his wife, and three daughters have lived alone on a remote island for many years, sharing a large villa with several unused and unoccupied rooms. The couple fled from the mainland in search of somewhere safe to raise their daughters, but we are never quite sure what the parents need to protect their daughters from; on the mainland there seems to be some kind of mysterious disease that men give to women, but we never know exactly what it is. The three daughters are told stories by their parents about the dangers of the world, and particularly of men: “There is no hiding the damage the outside world can do, if a woman hasn’t been taking the right precautions to guard her body.” These “precautions” are taught to the girls as a variety of bizarre rituals, also referred to as “therapies.” These activities include fainting rituals, drownings, and an ultimate act of purification, the so-called “water cure” from which the novel takes its name. However, the promise of protection is proven false: as the novel continues on, Mackintosh reveals the true extent of the cruelties the parents have wielded, both individually and as a couple, on their daughters.
The novel is split into three sections, “Father,” “Men,” and “Sisters,” written from the perspective of either Grace or Lia, or sometimes from the perspectives of the three in tandem, suggesting a shared position, like a Greek chorus. However, this promise of unity is undercut by the difficulties they face, and though there is a definitive split between the girls and their parents, the girls forge uneasy alliances. Through mental manipulation, the girls are taught to think about love in counterintuitive ways, picking favorites through a ritual of drawing irons. After the death of their father, for example, the mother instructs, “No more love!” and then, “Love only your sisters.” This sisterly love is also tested: the middle sister, Lia, often volunteers in such practices as killing toads or encouraged acts of violence, in order to spare the feelings of another. The idea of love in general is subject to strange testing, analysis, and suspicion.
These tests and rituals indicate Mackintosh’s engagement with the historic medicalizing and pathologizing of women’s bodies. The “therapies” seem to directly link to various treatments used by doctors in Western medicine for a variety of “feminine” ailments. The relationship between women’s bodies and water has a long history in the treatment of women, particularly young women experiencing the symptoms of hysteria. Mackintosh plays with the word “cure” as both a treatment and the process of preservation, suggesting the double-meaning that haunts the girls’ lives. She contrasts the promise of protection and health with an eradication of desire and autonomy. To keep women “healthy” in the world of the novel is to keep them contained.
This is also the case in the way that the characters treat their feelings. As Lia explains at one point: “My feelings are limping, wretched things.” She cries often during the novel, and maligns her needs for love and touch. She explains that feelings are “[e]specially dangerous for women, our bodies already so vulnerable in ways that the bodies of men are not. It was a wonder that there were still safe places, islands like ours where women can be healthful and whole.” Through many moments like this, we get a glimpse of the reasoning that led the parents to isolate themselves in the first place and their utopian vision inherent in their promises of safety. Increasingly, however, the promise of utopia is set against the fundamental problems of agency and consent.
Throughout the novel this problem is found most pressingly in the way that the parent’s control of their daughters affects the way they think of their bodies, making them scared of their own capabilities, their strengths, and, importantly, their desires. A constant fear underscores this novel. It is never clear how much the anxieties that the girls’ parents have filled them with are based in reality. At some point in the not-too-distant past, other women were making their way from the mainland to the island in search of refuge, but this was also fraught with mystery. Things wash up on the beach, things that the girls refer to as “ghosts,” which they imagine, or have been told, are the decomposing bodies of sick women — something that we never know for sure. As Lia engages in a sexual relationship, she begins to notice things about her body, a loosening of teeth or increased bruising, but it is never clear whether this is from her own undernourishment or caused by the man she is sleeping with. Toward the novel’s end, Grace reflects on the time when their house was filled with women from the mainland and what their presence taught her: “The violence came for all women, border or no border. It was already in our blood, in our collective memory. And one day the men would come for us too.” In this way, Mackintosh depicts the terror of moving through the world in a woman’s body, with a profound but unspecific sense of dread.
In a world of fear, questions of desire become extremely difficult. What does this fear do to love and to the incommunicable desires of each of our bodies? All of the relationships between men and women in this novel are fraught and, at times, extremely unpleasant. The death of the patriarch in the opening page does not diminish his presence, and his predilections for creating the rules of his daughters’ lives continues. In the second part of the novel, two men and a young boy wash up on the shore, complicating the lives of the young women further. Lia’s relationship with Llew replays some of the most familiar clichés of heterosexual romance, but it does not make it any less painful for her, as she wrestles with her own physical desires and her need for love and contact. Grace’s pregnancy is explained to her sisters as a result of supernatural forces, but in her account, given at the end of the novel, she reveals that she was in an incestuous relationship with her father — though he claims she was not really his daughter it is difficult to know for sure — which transforms his promises of protection into much more sinister confinement and control. Similarly, when suspicions increase between the men and the girls, the men lock them in a room, under the guise of protection. Again, Mackintosh comes back to the difficult terrain of the control of women’s bodies as determined by men. The book’s repeated use of the word “toxic” is extremely loaded, chiming as it does with growing attention to and discussions of toxic masculinity, its symptoms and its effects. Though the book is written in a series of first- and third-person accounts by the three young women, the desires of the men are an overshadowing force. The male characters are ambivalent and controlling, seeking to coerce women into assuming possessions that repress them.
Though this is undeniably bleak, Mackintosh seeks to find solace in the relationship between sisters. In a recent essay for LitHub, Mackintosh thinks about her own sister and the composition of her writing: “There were times during the writing of my novel, so many years later, that I thought: sisterhood has failed me! And I also thought sometimes, darkly, I have failed at sisterhood.” We see this ambivalence recur: though it clearly thinks deeply about the distinctive relationship between sisters, it does not necessarily present any answers to its many questions. One way that the novel does delve into an interesting area is through its complex portrayal of desire: Mackintosh shows desire in its many forms, not simply as sexual or sensual, but also as a wolfish need to be close to each other, in packs. The sisters strive to overcome their fears and jealousies through living together in close proximity, accepting each other and loving each other selflessly. There is a central belief throughout the novel in a shared understanding between women that can emerge in the most unlikely of places.
Mackintosh writes in a very particular palette — lavenders, blues, and whites — and in textures — muslin, cotton, and linen. There is something of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides in her costuming of her three sisters, and like that film, she contrasts a dreamy aesthetic with a constant threat of violence — the thin white material of the dresses they wear at points serving to mop up blood. But the violence that infuses this text does not give way to an unadulterated pessimism. Instead, there is something that holds firm all through her writing: Mackintosh believes that there can be some escape. In the final few pages of the novel, as the girls leave the home that has also been a prison, these “new and shining women” move out of the territory of supposed safety and into the unknown future.
Katie Da Cunha Lewin is a writer and tutor based in London. She writes on literature, culture, and film and can be found in the Irish Times, The White Review, and the Times Literary Supplement, among others.