Does Sophie Mackintosh believe we would be better off in a world without men? When her first novel, The Water Cure, came out several months after the height of the #MeToo movement, a number of reviews focused on the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ made real. On a remote island, or what they think is a remote island, three sisters – Grace, Lia and Sky – have been helping women escape from ‘toxins’ produced by men. The book is filled with descriptions of the bad things that men do to women, reported by guests who have visited the retreat run by the girls’ parents, Mother and King. ‘If we were to spit at them, they would spit back harder … They would have liked us all dead, I know that now.’ ‘Everybody knew and nobody helped … They said, with their eyes, why should you escape it?’ How and why men have become toxic is not something we are told.
The girls have been raised to think they are building a new world, one that leaves them better prepared for what Lia, the middle sister, describes as ‘the personal energies often called feelings’. The most intensive cure, the water cure, involves filling a basin with warm water and salt, ‘more salted and viscous than the sea, something closer to our own blood’. A woman then leans over the basin and submerges her head. Other women watch as she gradually runs out of oxygen. ‘And then, as always, just past the point when we were sure it would be over, she was pulled up, strawberry-flushed and gasping.’
Mackintosh’s two novels could be classified as dystopias but they are more like hermetically sealed thought experiments. The worlds they describe are different from the one we wake up in, but neither more sophisticated nor more developed. Her novels are grounded in what her characters touch, eat and see. The books contain no politicians, grandparents, cousins; her characters have been reduced to the barest relationships and emotions. There is little ‘before’, and even less of a suggestion of an ‘after’. Mackintosh seems to have no interest in how the characters got to where they are or where they might go next: what matters is the way they respond to an oppressive present. The question is not what might happen in some distant future but what is to be done when all available options are exhausted.
The first sign that something has gone wrong in The Water Cure is that King has disappeared or died. The second is that everyone is dressed in all-white clothing, made of stiff cotton; pieces of cast iron are used for ceremonial purposes. These are the tools the girls use to protect themselves against toxicity. But now the guests have stopped coming, and the sisters are even more alone.
Their parents have taught them to ‘release emotion’ through cruel exercises, such as wearing ‘fainting sacks’ of thick muslin in which they overheat until they lose consciousness. Sometimes one of the girls is chosen by her family to kill a small animal and watch it die. At the beginning of the year, each chooses a piece of iron bearing the name of a family member. The name indicates whom they are to love in the months ahead. But there are only four irons for five family members; one daughter will always find herself ignored. As their father has told them:
Strong feelings weaken you, open up your body like a wound. It takes vigilance and regular therapies to hold them at bay. Over the years we have learned how to dampen them down, how to practise and release emotion under strict conditions only, how to own our pain.
It’s not clear when the book takes place, only that this is an era marked by a sense of foreboding and the existence of tramadol. The girls’ isolation is total; they know nothing more than their small patch of land, surrounded by barbed wire, and their fear of leaving it. ‘Emergency has always been with us, if not present emergency then always the idea that it is coming.’ They mark the borders of their territory.
The three sisters share the narration of the book, sometimes together, sometimes apart, giving the novel an opalescent quality. This beauty is part of what makes The Water Cure so upsetting to read. Sentences fold over and into one another in such a way that you are drawn into the sound of the words without always noticing what is being said. I found myself attracted to particular sentences because of their rhythm, then wondered whether I agreed with statements such as: ‘Trauma is a toxin that hooks into our hair and organs and blood and becomes part of us, the way heavy metals do, our bodies nothing more than a layering of flesh around everything ingested and experienced.’ (Probably not.) The book seems to revel in itself; a reminder that people don’t join cults because they want to leave this world but because they think the alternative provides something much finer.
Mackintosh allows the evil of her fictional world to leach out slowly. Grace, the oldest sister, becomes pregnant. ‘A gift from the sea,’ their mother tells them, though she knows that the father is their own. Then two men arrive. One of them, Llew, seduces Lia, who is both more curious and more vulnerable than her angrier sisters. The very things the girls have been taught as means of defence in fact leave them powerless against this new masculine presence. Lia’s ignorance of the world feeds her enthralment to Llew. She wards off pregnancy with hot water. For many years she has been taught not to trust her own instincts. What would she feel if she could? After all,
we have never been permitted to cry because it makes our energies suffocating. Crying lays you low and vulnerable, racks your body. If water is the cure for what ails us, the water that comes from our faces and hearts is the wrong sort. It has absorbed our pain and is dangerous to let loose. Pathological despair was King’s way of describing an emergency that needed cloth, confinement, our heads held underwater.
Mackintosh is particularly attuned to the ways in which women are told to modify their feelings in order to modify the world, a mainstay of, among other things, the NXIVM cult and popular feminism. ‘Thinking yourself uniquely terrible is its own form of narcissism,’ King used to tell Lia when she cried.
What threat do these women’s emotions pose to men? Grace warns Lia: ‘It’s the men who don’t even know themselves that wish you harm – those are the most dangerous ones. They will have you cower in the name of love, and feel sentimental about it. They’re the ones who hate women the most.’ One suggestion is that women’s emotions test the authority men would like to convey. Masculinity works, in this book, not through any notion of ‘power’, but as a kind of seduction, through charisma, by promising something out of this world – but it is just as often brittle and weak. Grace later thinks: ‘Refrain of the man, universal: This is not my fault! See also: I absolve myself of responsibility. And: I never said that. You can’t take the actions of my body as words.’
Despite the focus on the sisters, I found myself drawn to Mother. Why does she stay with King, even after he has raped their daughter? She may be an ‘enabler’, as the contemporary term goes but I wonder to what extent she has a choice. One of the hallmarks of King’s philosophy is that the only way of responding to the dangers of the world is to create a family. It’s ‘the love of the family, a balm that keeps our airways soft and wet, a thing to keep us drawing breath’ that protects you in a toxic world. The experience of family, however, is like growing up on an island that turns out to be connected to land – the borders aren’t as absolute as you might hope. At the end of the book, the three girls find themselves alone, in true sisterhood, something closer to a real utopia. ‘Our cruelty is allowable,’ the sisters think in unison. ‘It kept us alive, it helps us to put things right. It has been helpful to look at it as a margin of error, morality-wise.’
Blue Ticket, Mackintosh’s second book, is more obviously preoccupied with the idea of choice and choicelessness. ‘It began with the allocating of luck,’ the protagonist Calla says at the start, ‘our bodies pinballs inside a machine.’ The lottery is the way girls come of age, the way they learn what kind of women they will become. White-ticket women raise children in the country. Blue-ticket women work in large cities and remain single. With her blue ticket, Calla is fitted with an IUD and sent on the road to a new life:
Blue ticket: Don’t underestimate the relief of a decision being taken away from you … Blue ticket: my life was precious enough as it was. I wasn’t to be risked.
Calla trains as a scientist in the city and develops a liberated but unfulfilling routine. She drinks too much and sleeps around. Her neighbours keep asking her what became of this man or that, but none of the relationships lasts – she always suspects that the men, who are not subject to any fertility restrictions, will eventually leave her for a white-ticket woman. She seems to have little connection to any other person. She no longer talks to her father; her mother is dead. Her colleagues at the lab are held at a distance.
Her only real tie is to Doctor A, a hybrid therapist/GP who asks her questions about her childhood, administers drugs and performs physical check-ups. She feels close to Doctor A, but is under no illusion that theirs is a special relationship. He has been assigned to her at random because he is the doctor for her apartment block. Her neighbours confide in him too. It is perhaps not surprising that she longs for something else. She removes her IUD with a pair of tweezers and decides to run away. She doesn’t know what she’s looking for, only that she can’t stay where she is.
In Blue Ticket, it isn’t Calla’s lack of freedom that grabs Mackintosh’s attention, but her physical transformation during pregnancy: her thicker hair, the way the hormones affect her teeth. ‘What it felt like: cold electricity. A dragging in my body. I felt like a bird that had been pulled, inexplicably, to the ground.’ Calla details the days she has spent without bleeding, the way she smells, the way the journey away from the city changes her body in short passages that could be reports for Doctor A. She is never quite sure which urges come from her mind and which originate somewhere in her body. This may also be a sign of how lonely she is. When Calla leaves the man she has been sleeping with, she writes ‘Biochemical reaction!’ and ‘all intimacy is manufactured’ below her list of ‘bloodless days’.
Calla’s path from the city is dangerous. Men hit and hurt her. The fake white ticket she wears around her neck doesn’t fool anyone. On the road, she meets Marisol, another woman who has escaped, a woman who, like her, has left to give birth somewhere else. They enter into a kind of relationship and then welcome other pregnant women to a cabin in the woods from which they plot to cross the border.
The system behind this social control is only shakily described. When Calla becomes pregnant, she receives a ‘pack’ containing a tent, a ‘rudimentary map’, some food and a ‘pistol that looked very old, antique even’. Rather than arrest her, the government gives her 12 hours to run away before they begin their pursuit; a nice premise for a novel but a strange course of policing. At first it seems incomprehensible that women would be intimidated by a surveillance system that is patchy at best. But, as we have seen recently, governments don’t have to wield technological prowess to be terrifying. Incompetence is enough to exhaust people into submission. When Calla is attacked in a bathroom by men who have found out she is running away, she thinks: ‘It almost seemed like an absurd, elaborate joke, but at the same time it was hard to breathe.’
Calla often wonders about her own desire for a baby – why was she so keen to disrupt her life, to stray into the forbidden? Mackintosh presents this as a kind of tension between what is possible and what isn’t; the need to have something that one knows one can’t have. ‘The problem with you is that you don’t take advantage of your freedom in the way that you should,’ Doctor A tells Calla when she calls him from the road, ‘I mean, you could do anything … almost anything.’ Late in the novel, the group of pregnant women are joined by a white-ticket woman who has been beaten up for trying to abort her pregnancy. Neither side understands the other; the pregnant women, who have been choosing names and touching one another’s bellies, can’t comprehend why the white-ticket woman didn’t want a baby. She heckles them. It surprised me to hear characters in a parallel universe speaking the language of the American reproductive rights movement. ‘I don’t understand why you want to have your body hijacked this way. To embark on such danger,’ the white-ticket woman says. Elsewhere, Calla says: ‘My name is Calla and I wanted to choose.’
Is it possible that the desire to have a child, to escape a narrowly defined world, might simply be an expression of wanting something else? Calla rarely thinks about what her life with the child will be like. ‘When I thought about giving birth all I saw was a tunnel of shining white light, and beyond that the purest obliteration.’ It’s striking that in this novel, which plays with ideas of freedom, choice is presented as something close to a suicide mission. One of the more disturbing suggestions is that the urge to reproduce and the urge to hurt someone come from the same place: a need to prove oneself as an individual. ‘What would we choose if we had a real choice?’ Ellen Willis asked in 1981. Making choices, in Mackintosh’s depiction, is less an expression of will than a way of knowing if one has one.
Reading Blue Ticket, I was reminded of a period in 2019, back when taking the subway was still a daily occurrence. An IVF company had begun to advertise in subway stations; the turnstiles were coloured lavender with names of IVF procedures written on each spoke, so that commuters would push through different types of treatment to get to work. At the time I was working as a volunteer, accompanying women who had just had abortions back to their apartments. These women, for the most part, had not been able to afford the treatments on their own, nor, in many cases, had they wanted to tell family or friends what they were doing. Volunteers waited at the clinic and travelled with the women to the further reaches of New York City to make sure they got home safely. The stations advertising IVF treatments (average cost: $8500) were not in the parts of the city where these women lived. White ticket, blue ticket?