The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
Grace, Lia and Sky live with their parents in a large house, perhaps a former hotel, on an otherwise uninhabited island. Beyond their boundaries the air is foul, making women sick. They build their strength through prayer, exercise and “therapies”, often involving suffocation and near drowning, and prove their love for family above all else by hurting one of their sisters, to save the other from having to do so.
One day, their father disappears. He can’t have gone to the mainland for supplies as they didn’t do the breathing ritual before he left, so they assume he’s dead. Then two men and a boy arrive on the shores. Grudgingly, their mother let them stay until help arrives, so long as they keep their toxins away from the girls. And then she disappears, and their whole world begins to fall apart.
Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel caught my attention when it was published back in May. I wonder if I’d have appreciated it more if I’d read it then, before its longlisting for the Man Booker Prize raised my expectations. I wonder if I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d read it before Gather the Daughters, which is similar and, to my mind, the better read. (There’s another similar novel I read over a decade ago, but can’t recall the author or name.) Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for my review copy.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Like me, you’ve probably read novels in which two or more families rent a holiday cottage and gradually discover they’re not as compatible as they thought. The men revert to boyhood, locking antlers or enjoying rough play while the women do the washing up. Sarah Moss’ sixth novel is of that genre, with rather more subtlety and the shadow of the ancient practice of sacrificing teenage girls to the bog.
In the Iron Age encampment, Silvie, whose father is a bus driver and her mother a supermarket cashier, can defend herself against class prejudice and the north-south divide. But the student Molly presents an altogether different kind of threat, both in the smell and shape of her body and in her independence of mind.
Silvie and her mother are much better prepared than students, or even the professor who instigated the experiment, for the deprivations of camp life. They know how to live with violence and to accommodate to the patriarch’s moods. But if her mother is unsettled by Molly’s feminism, she doesn’t show it. She keeps her head down as tries to cook the foraged food over a peat fire, while her daughter dares to dream of a different kind of life.
Being familiar with Northumberland, I found myself distracted, as I tend to be with the fictionalised Peak District, by trying to locate the exact spot with both moorland and coast within walking distance and in sight of Hadrian’s Wall. But that’s less criticism than testimony to Sarah Moss’ writing rendering the setting so real.
In just shy of 150 pages, Ghost Wall packs a powerful emotional punch. (Although, because it doesn’t conform to paragraphing conventions, there might be words than average on each page.) A few more pages devoted to foreshadowing might have made the climax more credible but, despite my initial scepticism, I soon found myself caught up in the horror of Silvie’s plight.
Having enjoyed this author’s two previous novels (see here for my review of The Tidal Zone and Signs for Lost Children) is my favourite so far. Thanks to Granta books for my review copy. For another novel on bodies in the peat, see Meet Me at the Museum.