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by James Sallis

 

The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh, Doubleday, 2019, $25.95, hc

 

As individuals, as a nation, as a species, we form ourselves by way of stories, stories that have within them the power both to save or recollect us, and to destroy us.

From the first, science fiction has envisioned itself firmly in the savior camp. Pohl, Asimov, Kornbluth, and company, gathered as Futurians in some apartment clinging to the edge of Manhattan, stood ready to deliver us with stories that met a new world head-on as did no others, perhaps (they insisted) the only stories that would save us. Science fiction's direst dystopias and disasters came wrapped in bright papers with greeting cards attached: This is what could happen, you'd best listen to us.

Let us save you.

There's a problem with that, of course. Didacticism, like toads and great horned owls, has a way of puffing itself up to appear much larger than it is, so that we come to embrace the message of a story or novel as its reason for being. The very ease of extracting what-it's-about can discourage further considerations. The story becomes, not a capture of imagined experience, but a billboard, a sound bite, a sampler hung on the wall by the microwave. Ultimately, this reductivism may provide a field such as science fiction its public identity. (How many articles have you read concerning science fiction's failed predictions of the future?) Yet science fiction, like other arealist, non-mimetic fiction, is by its very nature and reach vastly inclusive, plugged into the same currents from which derive our fairy tales, our archetypes, our myths, even our religions.

 

*   *   *

 

Back when I was a child in Arkansas, a state with six venomous snakes, I was told we also had a species that, if you chased one then came to a stop, the snake would turn and chase you. All in fun. Or so local legend had it.

Originally published last year by Hamish Hamilton in the UK and long-listed for the Booker Prize, The Water Cure drew little notice when brought out by Doubleday here, and seems to have remained utterly off the map to science fiction readers. Reviewers typically included a few spare sentences as to the quality of the writing before moving on to discuss echoes of Shakespeare (The Tempest with its island habitat, King Lear and daughters) and, as centerpiece, the novel's feminist themes.

One of the many engines by which science fiction functions is by making metaphor real. Man is alone in the universe? Place an individual on Mars, crashed there and dying alone. Communism threatens our society? Have pods blooming into emotionless replicas of ourselves, replacing us. Or in the case at hand, begin with toxic masculinity as actual—as something deadly, something to be fled from, barricaded against—and go on from there. See what that world could look like.

The Water Cure is neither an easy book to read nor an easy one with which to come to terms. Everything we are taught is false, Rimbaud wrote, which could be the inscription over the gates to Mackintosh's novel. Page by page, line by line, it challenges our presumptions and upends all we thought we knew, both about the novel's world and about our own.

In short, The Water Cure is like that legendary snake. You pursue it, it turns and pursues you.

Here's what we begin with: A man known as King has established his family, a wife and three daughters, on an island to protect them from an unspecified disaster on the mainland, where the air is toxic, all are doomed, and women in particular cannot survive. Mysteriously, in the past some of these women would appear on the island to receive such therapies as a ritual death-and-rebirth drowning (one of the water cures providing the title in this novel where everything means so much more than it seems) before getting sent back. But now, with King's disappearance, they come no more.

 

Once we had a father, but our father dies without us noticing.

 

Grace, Lia, and Sky fail to notice because they are flat on their backs, faces smothered in muslin to shut out the world, "trying not to scream," one of many therapeutic rituals common in their lives. At first the young women believe they might be responsible for King's disappearance, that the hazardous "energies" (emotions) about which they have been forever warned may have escaped their bodies despite all attempts to stifle them and precipitated this. They search the house and beach, thinking Father has gone for supplies

 

…but then we remember he was not wearing the protective white suit, we did not do the leaving ceremony, and we look toward the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity.
…The father shape he leaves behind quickly becomes a hollow that we put our grief into, which is an improvement in a way.

 

Protective white suit. Leaving ceremony. Air ripe with toxicity. Right. We've been guided to read the language in a specific manner, according to genre codes. So here, on the first and second pages, we know we're reading science fiction.

And maybe we are.

The air over there is deadly. Breathe it and it will kill you. Objects washing up on the beach must be burned, handled with gloves, masks. Anything suspected of contamination has to be liberally dosed with salt.

And yet, those women come. Came. Looking as though their skin had peeled away, with missing fingernails and ripening bruises, scarcely able to speak. Came and went back.

Meanwhile, the sisters have many hollows into which they've been taught to deposit grief. A lottery system to decide which of the three will be most loved, which from whom all affections will be withheld. Ritual killing of small animals to save the others from having to do so. Self-driven drowning to the point of losing consciousness. Anything to keep the haven safe from outside influence. Let their guard down for a moment, abandon any of the ceremonies and safeties and (if it hasn't already) their world will end.

With Father's disappearance, it begins to do so. Three young men show up, shipwrecked, they say, on the beach. The arduous protections grow slack, recede, are ignored, all but forgotten. "Men have come to us," Mother says at the end of Part One, shortly before she too, just as mysteriously as Father, disappears. Fourteen pages later, having taken over the narration from Grace, Lia—the middle child, the secret cutter—tells us

 

The night the men come, I cry quite a lot without knowing why. My sleep is shallow. Their distant bodies are thumbprints of heat, somewhere lost in the house.

 

This house is going to kill us, as Grace remarks early on.

Narration passes from voice to voice, the three voices occasionally coming together in chorus, but Lia serves as primary guide. Here she addresses the urgency of the rituals and purifications:

 

Strong feelings weaken you, open up your body like a wound. It takes vigilance and regular therapies to hold them down, how to practice and release emotion under strict conditions only, how to own our pain. I can cough it into muslim, trap it as bubbles under the water, let it from my very blood.

 

And here, again on the subject of men, having come under one's spell:

 

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, and I wonder what that must be like, to know that your body is irreproachable.

 

Each voice comes to us intimately, a whisper in the ear, I've something important to tell you. In that relentless intimacy, and in the play of the urgency of what's being said set against its slow unfolding, lies much of the novel's extraordinary power.

There are indeed layers of meaning here, and just as many realities. Worlds give way, one truth falls as another takes its place. One moment the story's confiding, confessional; the next, evasive and contrary. Disaster has led King to sequester wife and daughters on an island? So it would seem. So the girls have been assured all their lives. Then deep within the book we discover that their sanctuary is not an island at all—or do we? The disaster, the toxic atmosphere? All this, say the male visitors who arrive once Father is gone and whose motives are never clear, all this is untrue, legends manufactured not to keep the women safe but to keep them in check. And what of Grace, the oldest, giving birth to King's child?

For all its free-range qualities, The Water Cure puts me in mind of some fantastical chain of logic, thesis stated, then bent a few degrees to be balanced by quite another, again and again: a novel of accretion, ever larger, ever more complex.

The finest review of Mackintosh's novel came in the UK's Interzone from fantasy writer Georgina Bruce. She called it "a bottomless well," a novel that rewrites itself as one reads. Everything that seems certain at the novel's beginning, she notes, gets called into question by the end, every fact is provisional, every truth is a lie wrapped in bright paper, every story morphs into a different story.

 

It is difficult to say what genre the book belongs to, even. It cycles through horror, with brutal mysterious rituals, cursed objects, ghosts on the sea; through science fiction, a post-apocalyptic world, a dystopian vision of eco-disaster; until finally it lands us somewhere devastatingly familiar. Returned to the familiar and known world, we are equipped to see it with renewed perspective, and to look at the events of the novel with a shocking clarity.

 

Now, this all may sound a bit heavy and forbidding. It shouldn't. Here's what we end with: Those voices whisper, something important in them, and they hold us. We come to care deeply about these characters, we wonder at their lives, witness those lives unfolding. From first page to last, The Water Cure remains above all an engaging story. It is also, for all its transmission through innocent, uninformed voices, and with absolute lack of pretention, as complex and inexhaustible as any literary work I've ever encountered.

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