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Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure: An Eco-critical Approach




Dr. S. Mahalakshmi
Assistant Professor of English 
APA College of Arts & Culture 
Palani- 624601
               
Abstract:

            The ultimate goal of this paper is to emphasize the dependency between Nature and mankind through Sophie Mackintosh’s novel The Water Cure (2018). It highlights the importance of Nature and its positive role in human life. The main plot is based on the three female protagonists named Grace, Lia and Sky who live on the island with their foster parents named King and Mother. The Island is used as a place of residence by King in order to keep his daughters under safety from the toxin filled mainland.  Mackintosh also introduces other women from the mainland who reaches out for help from Mother in order to recover from their physical and mental illness as a result of toxic situation which has turned men against women. The analysis of toxic manhood is a representation of ecosystem and Mankind as whole. The daughters are often exposed to different therapies modeled by King and Mother as a practice towards self-control and self-protection from toxic men. After the death of King and the Mother, with all their gained knowledge and strength from nature, the daughters have decided to exit the island in a way to make the people on the mainland turn towards nature and tradition. As a whole, it is difficult for mankind, culture and nature to survive without one another because they are interconnected. 

Key Words:  Ecocriticism, Environment, Nature, Culture, Therapies

            Ecocriticism could be considered as the only link which connects Nature and humanity to a common thread.  Literature is abundant with themes of Nature and culture, and acts as a pathway of understanding life. The writers of ecological concern strongly voice out their ideas in different ways in the form of documentaries, essays, articles, movies, and novels. These kinds of writings often convey the idea that there is an existence of other force even stronger than the mankind. The ultimate goal of this paper is to emphasize the dependency between Nature and mankind through Sophie Mackintosh’s novel The Water Cure. It highlights the importance of Nature and its positive role in human life.

            Sophie Mackintosh started her career as a novelist with her famous novel The Water Cure (2018) which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018. The novel is a blend of imagination and reality in various aspects. It is a modern tale of family, love, devastation, sisterhood, and creates a gloomy light on which the whole story travels. Mackintosh balances the plot with equal importance to the setting where she includes all the possible elements of hope and hopelessness in the form of Nature. The novel The Water Cure is a postmodern fiction in its style, theme and non-linear narration. The traces of ecocriticism are found in The Water Cure, a unique aspect that is found in Mackintosh’s novels. The work based on the Post-apocalypse of world as result of environmental degradation. Being a dystopian novel, the major plot takes place on an Island, which is untouched by the contaminated mainland, which refers to the urban landscape.

            The main plot is based on the three female protagonists named Grace, Lia and Sky who live on this island with their foster parents named King and Mother. The Island is used as a place of residence by King in order to keep his daughters under safety from the toxin filled mainland which is unsafe especially for women.  There are frequent rituals and therapies introduced in the novel and the daughters are seen performing the risky therapies in a courageous way. Mackintosh also introduces other women from the mainland who reaches out for help from Mother in order to recover from their physical and mental illness as a result of toxic filled environment where they fall as victims. The external effects of the toxins have resulted in polluting the mind and body of men. The toxin represents the industrial wastages and the effect of modernization on Nature and human beings. The analysis of toxic manhood makes the readers to understand that it is a representation of ecosystem and Mankind as whole. In the meantime, the whole plot takes a different turn by the arrival of the three men on the shore.

            The name of the female protagonists represents Nature and positivity. The name of the elder daughter Grace symbolizes beauty, love, charm, divinity and associated with greatness of God, the supreme creator of Nature. The name of the second daughter Lia, is associated with happiness. She wants to be happy and to be treated with love which is transparent throughout the novel. Her love towards Llew is compared with Nature in different ways where she says,

Afterwards, I am very happy. The leaves of the forest murmur around as though they were happy too. It is good to be in love, to have the whole world on your side. I lie on the towel as Llew walks around nearby, throwing rocks, inspecting leaves. Even in the shade, the breeze, the heat is almost unbearable. It is warmer since their arrival, I know, I am not imagining it. (147)

She compares her happiness with the sound of the leaves which is parallely seen in Kalidasa’s Shakuntala in which the protagonist Shakuntala is also strongly bonded with Nature. It gives her a feeling that Nature is a part of her family and Grace also consider Nature as their extended family as a result of their solitude. Sky, the name of the third daughter is named after the sky which changes with respect to the weather conditions. Similarly, Sky fluctuates between internal and external emotions like that of the clouds covering the sky but the sky remains unchanged under the clouds. Lia always experiences a true connection with nature and unsurprisingly, she is always curious about the mainland. This weakness makes her restless and leaves her in a state of weak self-control. It is seen after the arrival of men on the island especially after Lia’s affection towards Llew.

            The daughters are often exposed to different therapies modelled by King and Mother as a practice towards self-control and self-protection from toxic men. The life on the island is not an easy task for the daughters but, the girls volunteer themselves with complete interest. At the same time, the other women from the main land also visit the island for rendering help from Mother. Mother performs therapies to those women who are physically and mentally harmed by men as well as the toxicity in the mainland.   Those women are commonly called as ‘damaged women’ (122). Those women are identical with symptoms listed by mother such as, “Withering of skin. Wasting and hunching of the body.  Unexplained bleeding from anywhere, buts eyes, ears, fingernails, hair loss, Exhaustion, Trouble breathing. Tightness of the throat, the chest.  Agitation.  Hallucinations.  Total collapse.” (32) The symptoms of the damaged women are a representation of the damage undergone by the earth.  In this context,  ‘withering of the skin’can be taken as a representation of erosion of the soil due to deforestation, ‘wasting and hunching of the body’ refers to the slaughtering of the animals for human usage, ‘unexplained bleeding from anywhere  but particularly eyes, ears, fingernails’ is a portrayal of the extracting ground water through bore well  system, ‘exhaustion and agitation’ can be interpreted as the global warming and finally ‘total collapse' is a sign of pollution affecting all the possible natural resource such as water, soil and air. Hence, this aspect of comparing the oppression of women with the oppression of environment voices the environmental issues.  
   
             ‘The water cure’ (138) is the name of the therapy which is usually given to the damaged women. Water and salt play a significant role in curing the physical and mental ailments of the damaged women. Moreover, Mother commonly uses the strongest elements of Nature such as water, fire, salt and ice in her therapies. The women who underwent the water cure therapy experience the freshness in their body, mind and soul which is a kind of rebirth. It exemplifies the importance of Nature in every possible ways of survival on this earth. 

            The death of the king comes as a great shock to everyone as he was their only source of strength and hopes to live on the earth.  Nature helps in balancing emotions when the characters are in state of confusion mainly after the death of King.  Grace, the eldest among the three girls was pregnant with her baby probably by King who was the only man on the island.  Grace seems to be not interested towards her baby because she finds herself being lost somewhere in her life. Later, there is a gradual transformation in her character, when her sense of loss and depression was screened by a particular tree in the garden. Grace who was emotionally connected with the tree says, “My plan was to call my own baby Magnolia, after my favourite tree in the garden” (216). Nature plays substantial role in her psychological transformation and she becomes strong both physically and mentally enough to handle her depression after the death of king.

            The characteristic features of animals are often associated with the human beings both positive and negative aspects. Grace compares within her womb to that of dolphin, a symbol of protection.  Dolphins are often called as the saviours of the human beings. It is closely connected with the water and the sea.  While Grace gives birth to her son, Lia’s prays the sea God to protect her sister’s life.  Her prayers safeguard the life of her sister, by seizing the life of the baby inside her womb.  The death of the baby distorts the whole family and they experience some sort of relief and inner peace by surrendering it to the sea.  Sky calls it as the “The Burial at Sea” (116).  Hence, the death of the baby is similar to the death of every single organism sacrificed for the desires of mankind on this earth. A prolonged damage to the eco system can rapidly lead to the beginning of dystopia. The ecological niche emphasizes the importance of every single organism in the ecosystem.  Similarly, Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide is highly concerned about the diminishing type of the river dolphins in the Irrawaddy River and the novel sets as a major example in highlighting the need for preserving the rare and endangered species on earth. Sophie Mackintosh exotically describes a landscape where human beings and animals survive in a distinctive area without defeating one another.

            The novel gets more interesting when they encounter three strangers on the shore namely James, Llew and his son Gwil.  The mother an embodiment of love and care is usually strict with her daughters and more conscious about their safety especially from strangers and instructs her daughters not to indulge any sort of communication with them.  Lia seems to physically attracted towards Llew.  Later she realises that she develops a strong emotional bonds towards him.  In the meantime, Mother disappears from the island. It seems to be tough time for the daughters to be alone on the Island.  The absence of the Mother gives them a chance to make their own decisions for the first time in their entire life.  The relationship between Lia and Llew does last for a long time.  Lia wants him to spend time with her but he neglects and openly confronts that he wants to be with his son Gwil. Naturally agitated, Lia’s anger has instigated a sort of jealousy towards Gwil, and her forceful attitude towards him has resulted in his death.  The death of Gwil infuriates James and Llew. The plot gets a new shape when there exists a conflict between girls with Llew and James.  
      
            The plot has more twists and turns and serves as an eye opener for Grace when she engages in an open conversation James. James has opened up all the secrets by explaining that their arrival at the island is not an accident and discloses the fact that the King seems to be the one who has sent them in order to rescue the girls from the island. He openly confesses that, Llew was the one who has killed the Mother.  He also claims that the murder is not intentional.  It has happened when Llew tries to defend himself from her.  Finally, James has revealed about the mainland which is not filled with toxins and brutality.  It is the total contradiction to their vision of the mainland. 

            Mother in this novel, resembles, ‘Mother Earth’ which offers all the natural resources and teaches the human beings the life’s lessons. She, being a sacrificial mother, teaches her daughters to face the life with challenge and to come up in life. Grace finally takes a strong decision for the first time in her life and she murders James by slitting his throat.  Later, she narrates everything to Lia and Sky.  The sisters altogether have a decided to kill Llew but, they leave it to the hands of Lia to make the decision whether to choose the side of her sisters or to the side of LIew.  Lia wholeheartedly stands up for her sisters and finally she shoots him with Mother's Gun.  The novel ends with the water cure therapy performed by the sisters under the salt water with their hands holding together. The daughters are not aware of anything except the island, therapies, toxic men and damaged women but hoping for a new beginning, even if it is good or bad, they wanted to experience the world outside the island.  There falls a tree upon the barbed fence and they walk over the trunk to face the real world,

At the end, the rusted barbs of wire, we weigh it down with branches until we can step over. It takes us some time, but we clear it. We stand on the other side of the territory, breathing in the new air. Somewhere in the air there are voices, but they seem very far away. We look back towards the house, but it is long gone. All we can see is the forest. The cool leaves, the branches. (247)

 Throughout the novel, Nature acts as a guiding force which unconsciously serves as an important purpose in the self-realization. 

            Sophie Mackintosh conveys her urge to save mankind and the earth through the characters in this novel. Grace says, “Event if it a failed utopia, at least we tried” (222). The phrase ‘failed Utopia’ depicts the existing environmental crisis and it implies that the earth needs more concern and affection for a healthy transformation that is from failed utopia to utopia. Rachel Carson a notable American biologist and an eco-critic brings out her ideas as, “In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference” (Silent Spring 39).

            With all their gained knowledge and strength from nature, the daughter’s leave the island in a way to make the people on the mainland turn towards nature and tradition. As a whole, it is difficult for mankind, culture and nature to survive without one another because they are interconnected. Disturbances of any one of these will collapse the whole system. Though the hints of toxins, diseases, pollution and contamination threatens as it may be the end of the world, the fresh air, clean water, juicy fruits and garden- fresh vegetables found in the novel are the few signs of optimism.  Thus, Sophie Mackintosh combines every aspect of Nature in order to provoke ecological consciousness in a dystopian outset through her novel The Water Cure.

Works Cited

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Penguin, UK, 2000. Print.
Mackintosh, Sophie. The Water Cure, Penguin. 2008. Print.
Sumathi, U. Ecocriticism in Practice, Sarup Book Publishers, 2009.Print.