Saturday, April 29, 2023

Cursed Bread, by Sophie Mackintosh

"We are so often wrong about the ones we love, slowly debasing ourselves, so gradually we barely notice we're doing it."

Doubleday, 2023
190 pp


The truth is that after the first thirty pages or so of reading this novel, I stopped and added to my goodreads status something to the effect that I hoped that it got better because I wasn't really enjoying it to that point.  Well, never a quitter, I kept reading --  not only did it get better, but after that first stopping point I did not want to put this book down.  Not at all.  

Cursed Bread begins with the arrival of a new couple in a small, unnamed town in postwar France.  The Ambassador (no other name given) has (he says) been tasked with a "government project, a kind of survey" to "learn more about the real people of this country. To truly get to know them, the citizens who make it what is is."  The women in the town are quite naturally curious about his wife Violet, but none more so than Elodie, the wife of the town baker, who narrates this story looking back on events that  eventually led her to "a convalescent place by the sea" after some pretty horrific happenings in her town.   At the outset she wonders about her memories, "holding them up to the light" and questioning whether "it really did happen like this."  And, if it did, could she "tell it differently?"  Our storyteller decides that "perhaps it's best to be honest," so we must place ourselves in her hands.  

Elodie was a woman "starving for contact,"  desperately wanting to feel noticed, needed and desired, someone who sensed that there was something more out there for her than the proscribed, humdrum life she currently lives, and a woman whose appetites for passion and intimacy had gone unsated. Her initial meeting with Violet happened in the bakery,  and although they hadn't exchanged any meaningful words, she notes that afterwards, Violet had "haunted" her thoughts.   After a strange, voyeuristic  encounter at a party given by the newcomers at their home, it was as if Elodie had been struck by lightning, leaving her with a heightened awareness of the dark, erotic electricity bouncing between the Ambassador and Violet.   From then on, as she notes,  even brief glimpses of Violet would create "a pulse of something" running through Elodie.  As time goes on, Elodie takes every opportunity she can to insert herself into Violet's life, and Violet begins to pay more attention to Elodie, sharing some intimate details of her relationship with her husband while at the same time keeping other things shrouded in mystery.  Eventually, Elodie finds herself obsessed with this woman, becoming fixated on her own fantasies to the point that her desperation and desire lead her down a dark path in hopes of appeasing her own hungers.  As the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur, she fails to realize that her choices also leave her vulnerable to those who might take advantage for their own agendas. 

Between chapters the novel also contains letters written by Elodie to Violet from her seaside safe space as she tries to sift though her memories, but it appears that perhaps Elodie has not been as "honest" as she earlier proclaimed she would be.  And while the focus of this story centers on the relationship and dynamics between Elodie and Violet, as the dustjacket notes, "beneath the tranquil surface of village life, strange things are happening"  leaving in their wake "a dark intoxication"  that manifests itself in  madness, hallucinatory experiences and for some people even worse fates.  

 An extremely brief and barebones post here certainly,  but Cursed Bread is a visceral read that must be experienced firsthand. At its heart, the novel examines the power of desire, which can be both destructive and self-destructive and in this case transformative; it is dark and claustrophobic, seasoned by an ongoing sense of danger that ratchets up the tension until the end.  

  It is only at the end of Cursed Bread in a brief "Author's Note" that we learn that
"In the summer of 1951, the small French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit succumbed to a mass poisoning.  There are many theories regarding the source of this catastrophe. None have ever been proved."
This event has been thought to have been caused by ergot poisoning -- le pain maudit (cursed bread) -- but who knows -- there have been a number of theories floated about regarding this incident.   I don't necessarily think that  the author is trying to simply fictionalize that traumatic event here, but setting the novel  against the backdrop of the Pont-Saint-Esprit worked for me, since the effects of the poisonous relationships in this story couldn't  help but to seep through to the rest of the town.   And while completely different,   I couldn't help but to be reminded of Barbara Comyns' excellent Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, the blurb of which mentions a newspaper article with the headline wondering "Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?," which, given what happens in Cursed Bread, seems more than appropriate. 

Although a lot of professional critics and more than a few readers have given this novel rather tepid reviews, I loved it and definitely recommend it for those looking for something a bit different and something  definitely on the darker side.