In Sophie Mackintosh’s thundering literary debut, women are never safe. The Water Cure picks apart the patriarchy with such delicious ferocity it has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018. Some deem this a dystopian tale, but its power lies in capturing the very real claustrophobia of being powerless. A woman’s right to autonomy – whether explored via three sisters on a fictitious island, or indeed within our own everyday lives – highlights the uncomfortable truth that the fight for equality shapeshifts yet rages on.
Sophie is part of a wave of writers refusing to participate in the patriarchy both on and off the page. Instead her writing shakes the system with a message that women fight back and prevail. A line in her book perfectly depicts striving to be a free woman in an unjust society: “There is a fluidity to his movements that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing.”
Wilma: Toxic masculinity is communicated in such an interesting way in the book – men literally poison the air. What prompted that idea?
Sophie: I suppose I’ve had a lifetime of being aware that men can hurt you, but when I started writing the book in 2016 there seemed to be a new boldness to the way masculinity – and men like Donald Trump – was portrayed in the media. Even something minor like catcalling seemed to take on new aggression. I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Women in my life were feeling it too, so I wanted to understand how to explore and tackle patriarchy. That’s where the idea formed: what if men could hurt you simply by existing?
Some might argue that power exists already…
Absolutely. Social media tells us so much more about the experiences of women involved in horrible rape cases – like the Belfast rape trial, for example. I can scroll through Twitter and feel ill, passively consuming all this dreadful information. The book takes this idea a bit further: what if that feeling made you physically sick, a thing to be contaminated?
There are definite cultish tones to the characters’ family structure. Was that intentional?
I took a lot from cult leaders. The idea of a family or community in isolation when the rest of the world has departed really interests me. King [father character] had to be a powerful figure, someone you would be afraid of in the outside world. He had to be a macho man in a world where that’s the most toxic quality a person can have.
I love the way the sisters have their own vocabulary – hornets are dignified, bodies are ghosts. Nature seems like a comfort to them.
My agent pointed out that the three girls have their own element: Leah is water, Sky is air and Grace is earth because she’s sensible. I was so happy when she pointed that out, so I’m going to steal that reference! The characters are deeply connected to their environment because they have never known anywhere else.
In the book, water is both a cure and a curse. What drew you to it?
I researched Victorian water cures for the therapies explored in the book. These elaborate water therapies were widely used until they were completely discredited less than 200 years ago. Water is still symbolic in rituals today, like holy water used in Lourdes and ice water swimming for therapeutic effect. There’s such richness in the idea of water being a curative.
After reading the book, I did feel compelled to hold my breath underwater in the bath. Did you ever tip over to the other side?
I can’t really go to a swimming pool now without thinking about the water therapies [in the book]. When I started writing, I put a lot of myself into Grace and Leah. Of course, the book isn’t autobiographical but I put feelings I’d experienced into the characters to see them play out in different contexts. I’d created something out of this anger I’d felt and emerged feeling ready to take on the world.
The book has a humid, claustrophobic quality to it. Was that important to create a sense of continuous danger?
Perhaps one of the reasons it feels like a claustrophobic book is because I felt quite claustrophobic writing it. I probably wasn’t fun to be around during that time. Sometimes writing can be a struggle but because I so wanted to finish it, it was actually a struggle to do anything else. My poor boyfriend took such good care of me and recently said “you’ve come back” like I’d been off to war. The week before the book came out, we found out he had cancer. He’s recovering really well but now it’s my time to look after him.
I'd created something out of this anger and emerged ready to take on the world
Is there a physical place that inspired the lush beach setting in the book?
There’s an amazing beach in Wales called Barafundle Bay and it’s a place I thought of when writing The Water Cure. It’s often voted one of the best beaches in the world. It’s hard to get to as you have to walk 1.5miles over cliffs but then you reach a massive, unspoilt beach. It feels otherworldly and its comforting to know a place like that exists.
You’re also a writer who has a second job. Are you quite disciplined about your writing time?
I feel almost superstitious about writing money, in that I want to make it last as long as I can. So, working part-time [Sophie does digital marketing for brands] means that I don’t have to feel so anxious about selling another book. I want to ensure I can support myself and write for as long as possible. I also think working on the side is a good way to make you do different things. If I was sitting at home all day thinking about writing a book it would be so easy to become complacent.
From one island to another: I know you’re a fan of Love Island. What do you think we learn through their relationship dynamics?
There’s a lot wrong with it, obviously: it’s super heteronormative, lots of race issues, everyone looks the same in a very specific version of beauty. But I keep watching it because there’s something compelling about seeing relationships develop and disintegrate in hyper real-time. It’s a microcosm of what’s actually happening in love and dating. And in a similar way to The Water Cure, these relationships develop in an intense and artificial setting amongst so many invisible rules. Watching these characters for 80 hours or so, you grow to care for them in a strange way. Someone should do a PhD on the linguistics of love and isolation on Love Island!
Despite its bleakness, The Water Cure feels like a hopeful book. Are you an optimistic person?
I do love my personalised Love Island water bottle, so whilst I’m not exactly bubbly I don’t think I’m too tense and morose. I’ve had periods of depression and melancholy over the years but maybe I can write a book like The Water Cure because I’m generally quite good- natured. Even if it does get claustrophobic it never gets to the level where I can’t get back up. I always remember there’s hope; you feel that towards the end of the book too. As the writer, I knew the sisters would be ok in the end and that was something to cling to.
The Water Cure is published by Hamish Hamilton