Feminist Dystopian Novel 'The Water Cure' Explores Reproductive Rights, Misogyny

Jan 6, 2019
Originally published on January 6, 2019 9:24 am
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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In a futuristic world where men are literally toxic to women, three sisters are raised in isolation with Mother and King, the only man they've ever known. They live in a mansion on an island, where other women come to heal from violent pasts and share their stories. Sophie Mackintosh's debut novel "The Water Cure" is one of several feminist dystopian novels that have come out in the past few years. It's a genre that explores uncomfortable and pervasive topics from violence and misogyny to what happens when women don't have reproductive rights. Sophie Mackintosh joins us now from the BBC in London.

Hello.

SOPHIE MACKINTOSH: Hi.

FADEL: So why don't we start with where the idea for this book came from?

MACKINTOSH: So I was working on a book about a family in an isolated environment. And, actually, in my original draft, the family lived on an oil rig, and the world was completely flooded. I realized as I was writing that I didn't actually need to invent a flooded world or any kind of tragedy because it felt like there was a disaster happening anyway. And that disaster, to me, I managed to kind of distill into this idea of, what if masculinity was literally toxic and would affect women physically? And from there, everything kind of slotted into place.

FADEL: That's a pretty in-your-face choice to make it a physical thing - that it actually makes women sick. Why did you make that choice?

MACKINTOSH: I think the year I wrote the book was 2016. And it felt like the world was changing really rapidly. It felt like there were a lot of views that had kind of gained legitimacy in terms of how we spoke about women's bodies and how it was acceptable to act towards women. And so while it did feel kind of in your face, it also felt very real. Often, I would check social media or the news and see stories. And I would feel, actually, sick. And I knew that other people I knew would feel sick, too. So it was my kind of way of turning those angry, sick feelings into positive action.

FADEL: So in order to protect themselves from the outside world, these toxins, the sisters - Grace, Lia and Sky - have to perform these therapies that can be violent. They're called water cures. What are they?

MACKINTOSH: So the water cures comprise things such as almost drowning themselves, submerging themselves in cold water, going into saunas until they, actually, physically pass out. They are quite violent. And they are all kind of based around water, generally, and the salt. And I picked these water-based therapies based off Victorian water cures and historical water cures, all these kind of archaic methods that had been used to treat hysterical women in the past.

FADEL: Wow.

MACKINTOSH: I thought it would be interesting to think about how they could be used in a modern-day setting. And there is something very kind of primal and feminine, too, about water, I think. It's very life-giving. But it is, you know, a dangerous element, too.

FADEL: Everything changes for the sisters when their father, King, disappears - or their father figure. And then men appear. Two adults, a child arrive on this shore with this isolated home. So what happens?

MACKINTOSH: So each sister has a different response, really. The eldest sister, Grace, she's very cold. And she's very much an older sibling. She's very tough. She has a totally different reaction to the middle sister, Lia, who's a lot more needy and emotionally vulnerable. And Lia ends up having a relationship with one of the men. And this is a catalyst for the events to follow.

FADEL: What struck me, too, is just how there's a softness, a beauty to the writing here, even when describing some really dark moments, violent moments - a femininity to the writing in many ways. Can you talk about the writing process?

MACKINTOSH: I used to be a poet. So for me, having the language be beautiful is always a priority for me. And I wanted the rhythm of the language to kind of reflect the water, to reflect that timeless, kind of dreamy atmosphere. You know, it is set in the future. But it could be set 50 years ago. It does have a timeless quality to it.

FADEL: Right.

MACKINTOSH: And that was a conscious decision on my part, I think because it's a book with a lot of ugliness. It was important for me as well to have those moments of beauty.

FADEL: Right.

MACKINTOSH: And I'm also a Welsh speaker. So for me...

FADEL: Yeah.

MACKINTOSH: ...Having the language that I grew up with reflected in the rhythms and stuff was also really important.

FADEL: What were your influences growing up? - authors that you read. You've talked about your grandfather giving you Stephen King and "Jane Eyre" books growing up.

MACKINTOSH: Oh, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MACKINTOSH: He always used to give me a deeply age-inappropriate book.

FADEL: Aw (laughter).

MACKINTOSH: I guess "Jane Eyre" - not so much. But yeah, Stephen King when you're, like, 7 years old is not terrific (laughter).

FADEL: Oh, wow. Did you have nightmares?

MACKINTOSH: Oh, yeah. I really had nightmares. I was a very nightmarish, nervous child. Perhaps that makes sense.

FADEL: Did that influence your writing? - because there is an element of horror in this book.

MACKINTOSH: I think I've always been drawn to the kind of macabre and the scary and the dark. It's always held a fascination for me. I can be quite a frightened person. I can be quite anxious. So kind of taking control and naming those anxieties and exploring those dark parts is really helpful for me and really interesting to me.

FADEL: You know, your book is being linked to this genre of dystopian feminist literature in the vein of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale." And more recently, we've seen books like Leni Zumas' "Red Clocks," Idra Novey's "Those Who Knew" and Naomi Alderman's "The Power." They're all getting a lot of attention. How do you see your novel fitting into this larger genre?

MACKINTOSH: I see my novel as being more of a quieter dystopia, more of a microcosm than the books that concentrate on the wider world. I do think there's a place for it within these books. I really love these books. And I'm really excited that they're getting more love and awareness, this kind of - this feminist dystopian genre. I think there's room for all kinds of stories. And just because it kind of focuses on one family instead of what's happening outside doesn't mean it's kind of less relevant or necessary, I think.

FADEL: Sophie Mackintosh - her debut novel is "The Water Cure." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MACKINTOSH: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.