Muslin in their Mouths: Identifying Conflict in Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure


Chaandreyi Mukherjee

Dr Chaandreyi Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Vivekananda College, New Delhi. She pursued her Ph.D. on "Womanhood in Haruki Murakami's Fiction" from Jamia Millia Islamia. She completed her M.Phil from the English and Foreign Languages University. Her research interests include women's literature, Japanese literature, feminism, postmodernism, Latin American Literature. 


Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure is a story of three sisters living on an isolated island. Conflict and its interrogation provides the premise of the novel which in turn is structured in a post apocalyptic manner with a clear binary between the world of the island (pure, sacred, different) and the outside world (disease ridden, contagious, harmful). Women as narrators, perpetrators, victims and observers claim the island as their home and transform the novel into a particularly female space. Shattering the myth of wholesome sisterhood and powerful female space is the mention of their father, interestingly called the King. What becomes clear is that the creation of the female space is actually the brainchild of the King. Desire- its articulation and repression becomes an important subtext in the novel. This paper would analyze the subtle messages about social conditioning in the novel and the conflicts of gender. This paper would also look into the so called story of Womanhood - its construction, dismantling and assimilation. What would ascertain a dialogue of peace in such a scenario? The resolution of conflict in this case is simultaneously associated with its problematization.

Keywords: Feminist dystopia, sisterhood, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, womanhood


The story of a land where women live at peace with themselves and with the natural world is a recurrent theme of feminist utopias. This is a land where there is no hierarchy, among humans or between humans and animals, where people care for one another and for nature, where the earth and the forest retain their mystery, power and wholeness, where the power of technology and of military and economic force does not rule the earth. (Plumwood 7)

Plumwood in her introduction to Feminism and the Mastery of Nature talks about the construction of a binary when referring to the so called female and male spaces- “Gaia and Mars” she calls them. The male space is essentially dominated by technological advancement, unbridled materialism and overwhelming prosperity- reckless in their achievement. This creation of a binary provides the foundation of the conflict in Sophie Mackintosh’s novel. The Water Cure initiates as a story of three sisters living on an isolated island. Conflict and its interrogation provides the premise of the novel which in turn is structured in a post apocalyptic manner with a clear binary between the world of the island (pure, sacred, different) and the outside world (disease ridden, contagious, harmful). While discussing female dystopian fiction, Alexandra Alter states:

Most of these new dystopian stories take place in the future, but channel the anger and anxieties of the present, when women and men alike are grappling with shifting gender roles and the messy, continuing aftermath of the MeToo movement. They are landing at a charged and polarizing moment, when a record number of women are getting involved in politics and running for office, and more women are speaking out against sexual assault and harassment. (“How Feminist”)

She adds, “Some of the novels are meant to serve as cautionary tales against political inaction and complacency, and as a warning that steps toward women’s equality may one day be curtailed” (“How Feminist”). Referring to Alter’s comments while reading Mackintosh’s novel becomes essential, especially to underline the subtle dystopian undertones of her fiction. The tone and flavour of The Water Cure may seem similar to a feminist revision of a patriarchal myth, however, the premise it seeks to project is fundamentally mired in ground realities of the twenty first century. In fact, whatever she writes, the examples she uses to denote the unforgettable gender disparity, are clichéd in their familiarity, and that may very well be intentional. The sustained popularity of feminist dystopias and the explosion of the #MeToo movement undoubtedly point towards the irrefutable fact – the convoluted power which patriarchy maintains is absolute, toxic masculinity is popular and even after decades of struggles, men and women are hardly equal.

In this regard, Sophie Gilbert writes:

Over the last couple of years, though, fiction’s dystopias have changed. They’re largely written by, and concerned with, women. They imagine worlds ravaged by climate change, worlds in which humanity’s progress unravels. Most significantly, they consider reproduction, and what happens when societies try to legislate it. (“The Remarkable Rise”)

Mackintosh’s novel begins with the declaration of the sudden loss of the father, an all encompassing male figure, predictably called “The King,” “Once we had a father, but our father dies without us noticing” (Mackintosh 3). What is interesting is the juxtaposition of the past with the present or the habitual; “dies” almost referring to an everyday death, a habit. The voices of the three sisters converge into one homogenous voice stating, “It is possible we drove him away, that the energy escaped our bodies despite our attempts to stifle it and became a smog clinging around the house, the forest, the beach” (Mackintosh 3). Female desire – its articulation and repression becomes an important subtext in the novel. It becomes interesting to note how the female energy merges the domestic space seamlessly with nature, or in this case the outside – the “smog” clings not just to their home, but stretches on to the forest and beach.

Part of what made the old world so terrible, so prone to destruction, was a total lack of preparation for the personal energies often called feelings. Mother told us about these kinds of energies. Especially dangerous for women, our bodies already so vulnerable in ways that the bodies of men are not. (Mackintosh 12)

Through the lessons of their parents, the sisters come to know about the terrifyingly toxic nature of the world that lies outside the realm of their island. Women – victims of abuse, trauma and violence, mostly at the hands of men, frequently turn up at the island. The King is responsible for inventing various “cures” or “treatments” to heal these broken women. The sisters have been taught that women are fundamentally associated with weakness of body, mind and spirit, and the only way to survive is to not let feelings overwhelm you or cloud your judgment.

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. I can cough it into muslin, trap it as bubbles under the water, let it from my very blood. (Mackintosh 18)

The repression of feelings is maintained through years of continuous brutal physical and psychological abuse interestingly called “therapies” at the hands of their parents. The systematic torture is intended to help strengthen their bodies and minds against the toxins of the outside world. The girls are made to play the “drowning game” and brought to the brink of drowning in the swimming pool. They are stitched into coarse fabrics and made to stand at the overheated saunas till they collapse. Each year, the family performs a ritual, “the drawing of the irons” in which they are randomly assigned a family member to love more than the others, leaving the odd one out to suffer in neglect until the next year.  In one of the most disturbing pages of the novel, one of the sisters, Lia, lists the wounds on her body, “Two dark purple fingertips on my left hand, from being submerged in ice…The starburst at the back of my neck where Mother once sewed my skin into the fainting sack…Water mark on my flank. Mother poured the hot kettle on me” (Mackintosh 40). The construction of the so called safe haven for women, the female utopia is manifested through violence on women by women. The so called female utopia is ravaged by patriarchy in which the mother becomes an unwitting agent of toxic masculinity. “Traditionally, women are ‘the environment’—they provide the environment and conditions against which male ‘achievement’ takes place, but what they do is not itself accounted as achievement” (Plumwood 22). The Mother in this case becomes a stronger, more resilient and inflexible parameter of patriarchy, not only providing the space/environment to the man/Father to achieve his dream of utopia, but also believing in his regressive ideas to such an extent as to forget her own identity. What is unique in the novel is the association of repression of feelings with environmental toxicity and accumulation of one’s resilience against it, not with morality. Giving it a scientific edge is trying to fuse it with rationality and reason; a subtle trick in which patriarchy can cherish its unquestioned and unrivaled kingdom.

In an interview, Mackintosh reveals her intention about associating pain with womanhood. She says:

Pain is so often written off in women as overreaction—a specifically female kind of overreaction. I’ve seen women in my life suffer for years, doubt their own symptoms, say that they do not wish to be seen as melodramatic. Conflating the physical and mental with women leads us to be seen as silly, as unreliable, too often—as attention-seeking rather than as a person suffering deeply. (Le Blanc, “Sophie Mackintosh’s”)

Mackintosh deliberately chooses to narrate pain and the paraphernalia associated with it. In one of the most perceptive essays questioning the importance of recognizing pain in women, Leslie Jamison writes:

The moment we start talking about wounded women, we risk transforming their suffering from an aspect of the female experience into an element of the female constitution— perhaps its finest, frailest consummation. The ancient Greek Menander once said: “Woman is a pain that never goes away.” He probably just meant women were trouble, but his words hold a more sinister suggestion: the possibility that being a woman requires being in pain, that pain is the unending glue and prerequisite of female consciousness. (Jamison 3)

She adds:

A 2001 study called “The Girl Who Cried Pain” tries to make sense of the fact that men are more likely than women to be given medication when they report pain to their doctors. Women are more likely to be given sedatives. The study makes visible a disturbing set of assumptions: It’s not just that women are prone to hurting— a pain that never goes away— but also that they’re prone to making it up. The report finds that despite evidence that “women are biologically more sensitive to pain than men …[their] pain reports are taken less seriously.” Less seriously meaning, more specifically, “they are more likely to have their pain reports discounted as ‘emotional’or ‘psychogenic’ and, therefore, ‘not real.’ ” (Jamison 6)

Mackintosh’s womanhood is deliberately fraught with extremes of emotions; the girls ‘hyperventilate’, ‘scream’, ‘go into hysterics’, ‘stuff muslin in their mouths to stop feeling pain’, ‘cut themselves to avoid distress’ and others. The physical pain of childbirth is juxtaposed cleverly with the shock of losing the child. What is relevant to note is that, both physical and emotional pain are essential to be acknowledged. It is patriarchy which deems pain purely as an attribute of womanhood.

Women as narrators, perpetrators, victims and observers claim the island as their home and transform the novel into a particularly female space. Shattering the myth of wholesome sisterhood and powerful female space is the idea that the creation of the female space is actually the brainchild of the King. “When the damaged women saw King for the first time they often recoiled. Man. But our mother explained that here was a man who had renounced the world…Here was a man who put his women and children first” (Mackintosh 41). There is a mention of “scream therapy” where the girls would expel gusts of air from their mouths so as to get rid of excess feelings. The King, the man, would have a stick called “conducting baton” and would guide the purge of emotions of the women. The man with his baton would orchestrate the performance of the women. The novel provides important messages about social conditioning, in this particular case, the passive conforming of the women to all the family rituals which are crafted by the Man supposedly to enable the sisters to become more like the traditional description of manhood- rational, cold, repressing emotion, becoming mentally and physically strong enough to harm anyone without thinking.

Mackintosh's novel flows seamlessly as water, the most important metaphor of the novel. Water is essential for survival, part of nature and culture, domesticity and science. Water, the most elemental and intrinsic part of nature is used as a cure to treat broken individuals, in this case, women. Water from nature, being transferred into the realms of domesticity, being used as a medical cure, to heal women who crave peace, safety and comfort from conflict. Water, thus, becomes an unlikely metaphor for identifying, clarifying and prioritizing difference between the two sexes. Water is also symbolic of violence, repression and angst:

We have never been permitted to cry because it makes our energies suffocating. Crying lays you low and vulnerable…If water is the cure for what ails us, the water that comes from your own faces and hearts is the wrong sort. It has absorbed our pain and is dangerous to let loose. Pathological despair was the King’s way of describing an emergency that needed cloth, confinement, our heads held underwater. (Mackintosh 68)

Water is also what surrounds the island, separating the toxic from the pure, the world of masculine domination and violence on women from the carefully crafted utopia. Water, thus, ironically represents the hollowness of these differences. The world inside the island is equally toxic with subtler and more refined forms of domination of female bodies and minds. Water is the passage to the outer world, through which the King, the provider, makes solo weekly trips to arrange food and sustenance to his family. Water is also the place where the still born baby of one of the girls is released. Life and death are intrinsically associated with the metaphor of water. The fluidity associated with it, stands in stark contrast against the stasis of the lives of the sisters. Water is also the symbol through which the demarcation between the outside male world and the inside female world is diffused, with the entry of the three males into the already conflicted female space.

The washing up of the men on the shore brings in more Shakespearean references into the King Lear-esque narrative of three daughters and a King. However, the world of The Tempest finds extremely different versions of power play associated with gender, sexuality and expression of desire- “The men have been watching us…At meals they chew and stare…Maybe they would eat us given half a chance. Anything is possible with these hungry looking men” (Mackintosh 82). Fear and passive aggressive demeanours dominate this section of the novel; the Mother trying to assert her dominance by “protecting” the girls from the men, the men trying every trick possible to initiate amicable relations. Lia’s seduction by Llew unfolds in a breathless pace through traumatic expressions of passion, “My body is a traitor, I am also a traitor,” (Mackintosh 96) gushes Lia with her unrestrained physical and psychological surrender. Her falling in love with the so called “enemy/man” occurs through debasement of her self, profound guilt, angst and confused evocation of a passion repressed for years:

Again I want to hurt him, want to save his life or ruin it, something, anything, I have not decided. I want him to leap for my approval like a fish, body twisting and I want to be the one who dictates the terms, but when I try, small stabbing gestures towards intimacy, he doesn’t react enough. (Mackintosh 144-145)

Llew responds to her baffled adoration with curt statements like, “Don’t cry…I hate it when women cry. It’s manipulative” (Mackintosh 148), “Are you my shadow now?” (Mackintosh 172), “Can you please be normal for a second?” (Mackintosh 184). Lia is sensitive enough to understand the shaming of her need by the man. Female desire never did have any place in patriarchy and have more than often been linked with hysteria. However, Lia is neither equipped to converse about her newly emancipated feelings nor does she find a safe space of acceptance and acknowledgement. “You girls are a new and shining kind of woman,” (Mackintosh 228) King tells them, proudly — after he has raised them vitamin-deficient and weakened by his therapies, and ignorant of basic human biology. They have been told repeatedly that their isolation is a privilege and their ignorance is innocence. But it is increasingly clear to the reader that these young women have simply been raised to fit their patriarch’s ideal of what pure, fragile, privileged womanhood should be.

The eldest daughter, Grace takes over the narration of the final section of the novel. The voices of the sisters which seemed almost unidentifiable in the initial pages, become more different and individualized. The change in tone from Lia’s poignant explorations of sexuality and helpless emotional pain to Grace’s narrative is represented through clarity, rage and understanding. The King is not the biological father of Grace and has impregnated her. The King has sent the men to bring the sisters to the mainland. The King has charted out their lives for them. It is almost necessary that Grace’s narrative unfolds as a monologue addressed to her foster father/lover/father of her dead baby. “Long before the days of the cure, you came for our books…Then you came for our hair…Finally you came for our hearts…They panicked you” (Mackintosh 241). It is interesting to note the trajectory of patriarchy, the domination begins from restriction of knowledge so that the girls unquestioningly accept everything they are told, to the curtailment of their physical selves and finally to the repression of their passions. Grace states, “Love was a great educator…It taught me first of all that women could be enemies too” (Mackintosh 219). She is jealous of the intimacy shared between her mother and the King and even imagines her sisters as competition. This is exactly what patriarchy tries to accomplish, pitting one woman against others, transforming them into “enemies”. Grace understands the conflicts associated with her Stockholm syndrome situation. In a way she is a captive in the so called utopia constructed by the King. However, in a space which restricts emotions in any form, any show of tenderness, even if incestuous/untoward/inappropriate/sexually deviant can be construed as attachment by the unwitting victim rather than unfiltered lust. Grace is traumatized and tormented by the realization of her own feelings for the King and he in turn relishes and encourages her extreme crisis of identity:

What it was like to be in love with you: fucking awful, even after you revealed it was technically all right. The love of the family magnified. Except I wasn’t of your blood. Except you had raised me like your own. Except I knew no other families to compare ours with. It was like having a permanent hangover. A pure, lightning nausea, not unlike how it would later feel to be pregnant. (Mackintosh 227)

She, however, is intelligent enough to see the cracks in the utopia:

We are your property, your rightful goods. Mother was worn out, a liability; I have replaced her. Half her age, body and mind equipped for survival. It is simple. You would explain it to us so reasonably if you were around. We would see it as the only rational act. (Mackintosh 223)

Reason and rationality are the tools which patriarchy glorifies in order to establish itself against the so called irrational hysteria of womanhood as is the transformation of women into commodities, used, maintained and exchanged as per their value.

Perhaps more a tale of patriarchal family structures taken to an extreme — the father as both predator and god, the mother a collaborator who occasionally protects, all three daughters hovering in a limbo somewhere between cherished possessions and future concubines for the patriarch. (Jemisin, “Three Sisters”)

 It is definitely a story about Womanhood - its construction, dismantling and assimilation. Unfortunately, here too, the women are either inferior puppets, or superior samurais killing men and refabricating a new female space. Women are never equal to men, men are never blameless. 

The Water Cure is not a simple book. It unspools ideas around solidarity and sisterhood, danger and gender, and the ways that families become their own toxic ecosystems. It takes that original, irreducible problem named in Genesis and asks it in a way that incorporates this increasingly prevalent idea of toxic masculinity and both gives it credence and names its limitations. The Water Cure doesn't, of course, offer a solution to that problem. But it does show us, in the bond between Lia, Grace, and Sky, that we have at least one tool not available to Eve back at the beginning of the world: sisterhood. (Quinn, “The Water Cure”)

The acknowledgement, recognition and acceptance of the new reality by the sisters lead to the formulation of a new and more vibrant sisterhood – very different from the coerced, tragic and manipulative sister-love propagated by their parents. This sisterhood is maintained through difference and divergence rather than homogeneity. The sisters perceive each other as complete individuals, not faceless shadows of each other. Together they embrace the liberation of a stifling utopia and commence an optimistic journey toward future growth. What makes this hopeful decision problematic is that the emancipation of women is carried on the complete annihilation of men. It is only when each of the three men are dead, that the power of the King over the sisters lessen. The novel is filled with testimonies from grieving/traumatized women who narrate the violence on their bodies and selves by men. In a way, sisterhood seems possible only when manhood is absent. Discussing the range and variety of contemporary speculative fiction, especially written by women and about women, Sophia Gilbert states:

The conventional thinking on dystopian fiction is that it serves as both a comfort and a warning. Speculative stories point to how much worse things could be, but also how much worse they could get. They remind readers of the stunning breadth of human frailty. We see the world distorted, sometimes beyond recognition, and it prompts us to look at our own reality from different angles. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood told me in 2017, is just a mashup of elements taken from different moments in history. Nothing was invented. Nothing was inconceivable, because everything had already happened in one country or another. (“The Remarkable Rise”)

The Water Cure is a glaring reminder of the excruciating realities of the present day, of the distortions of feminism and the inescapable violence associated with it. In an interview with Rhiannon Cosslett, Mackinstosh states:

There are so many things happening at the moment, such as #MeToo and the abortion referendum. It shows that women’s bodies are still very much up for debate. I read an article that said that dystopian feminism was ‘a big trend’, and I thought, ‘It might be a trend, but it’s also our lives.’ (“Dystopian Feminism”)

The Water Cure is Mackintosh’s way of imagining a world which is essentially problematic in itself. “Can a reign of women possibly be the answer to the earth’s destruction and to all the other related problems? Is ecofeminism giving us another version of the story that all problems will cease when the powerless take over power? Is ecofeminism inevitably based in gynocentric essentialism?” (Plumwood 8). This female utopia verges close to a dystopia, something more problematic than the simplistic notion of patriarchy. Toxic femininity is almost as equally reductive and regressive as toxic masculinity. The Water Cure emerges as a relevant, undeniable question, both subtle and vehement. It is simultaneously a plea and an admonishment addressed to the human kind to acknowledge and rectify their limitless capabilities of violence and destruction. It becomes the prerogative of the human beings to stall the bleakness and horrifying vision of future.

Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra. “How Feminist Dystopian Fiction is Channeling Women’s Anger and

Anxiety.” The New York Times. 8 October 2018. Web. 18 October 2020.

Cosslett, Rhiannon Lucy and Sophie Mackintosh. “Interview.” Guardian. 24 May 2018. Web. 18

October 2020.

Gilbert, Sophie. “The Remarkable Rise of the Feminist Dystopia.” The Atlantic. 4 October 2018.

Web. 18 October 2020.

Jamison, Leslie. “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” VQR. Spring 2014. Web. 2 February



Jemisin, N.K. “Three Sisters, an Island and an Apocalyptic Tale of Survival.” The New York

Times. 8 January 2019. Web. 21 November 2019.

Le Blanc, Lauren. “Sophie Mackintosh’s Modern Fairy Tale Imagines a World Where

Masculinity Is Literally Toxic.” Observer. 3 January 2019. Web. 2 February 2020.

Mackintosh, Sophie. The Water Cure. Hamish Hamilton, 2018.

Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Routledge, 1993.

Quinn, Annalisa. “'The Water Cure' Makes Toxic Masculinity Literal.” NPR. 13 January 2019.

Web. 2 February 2020.