Slipping into Sophie Mackintosh’s fiction is as comforting as it is disquieting. The tender consideration lavished on her characters, especially the women and girls her novels revolve around, is immediately tangible, and yet their worlds, glimpsed as through a gauzy, fractured filter, quiver with unease.
And in every case, desire vies with constraint, with the latter largely motivating both her spectacular 2018 debut, “The Water Cure,” where three sisters grow up on an island with no men except for their father, who indoctrinates them in extreme methods of stifling their bodies’ energy; and 2020′s “Blue Ticket,” where only women who win a lottery are permitted to become pregnant. In her deliciously ardent new novel, “Cursed Bread,” men again take steps to proscribe women’s actions, but their restrictions are subordinate to women insistently exploring the transformative potential of desire — both carnal and emotional — even when it is realized by domination, submission, and surrender. As the book’s narrator, Elodie, declares early on, “Nobody, at the beginning, believes they will debase themselves for love. Nobody believes in anything else but joy.”
The novel is inspired by real-life events in the summer of 1951, when the French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit “succumbed to a mass poisoning,” leading to death, madness, and violence. As Mackintosh continues in a brief concluding note: “There are many theories regarding the source of this catastrophe. None have ever been proved.” One of the most widely reported possibilities is that the CIA dosed the town’s food with LSD as part of a mind control experiment. Other potential culprits, including ergot (a fungus commonly found on rye) and mercury, have also been debated over the years.
“Cursed Bread” nods at all these options as it builds a tidy theory of the case, but is more concerned with the power dynamics among several possible instigators and victims of what is still referred to in France as “Le Pain Maudit.” For most residents in the novel’s unnamed “town of no importance,” the arrival of Violet and her husband for “a government project, a kind of survey,” is a curiosity, but Elodie’s life is reinvigorated. At the time, she is running the town bakery and married to its baker, but as she tells her story more than a year after the fact, she is in a different location, a “convalescent place by the sea,” where she is doing “penance” of a sort. She recalls the events leading up to the poisoning and writes letters to Violet reflecting on their relationship, and though she feels safe in her new space, she is regularly questioned by two local policemen. Elodie assures Violet that she “won’t talk, because the only real truth I could tell them is that sometimes there is a switch, and the world is turned upside down.”
Elodie slews between desperate, unrestrained longing and wicked, malicious aggression. She feels guilty of “murdering [her] marriage with familiarity,” but continues to pine for the baker’s touch. She tries to get him to make love to her, or even simply react to her, threatening at one point “perhaps I’ll throw myself off the bridge or bake myself into a pie,” all the while fantasizing about Violet’s American husband, known as the ambassador, and especially Violet herself.
Her attempts to attract Violet’s affections are muted at first, but Elodie is the town’s laical confessor, its eyes and ears, as well as a voyeur, a skulker in shadows, and her fantasies and fascination quickly intensify. At a party thrown by the new couple, Elodie spies on the ambassador and Violet kissing in the kitchen, sensing for a moment that he is strangling her. She follows the couple when they go upstairs to their bedroom, and watches trembling “unseen in the darkness,” as Violet promises to do anything her kneeling husband asks of her, before he adds, “more like a caress than a threat,” that if she eats the bread, she’ll die.
Spurred by the couple’s passionate and at times kinky interplay, Elodie’s daydreams rage wildly. She is conscious of her lived limits but eager to surmount them, or to have them surmounted. She accepts humiliation, as when Violet balances a jug on her head so she can sketch her, but nevertheless craves a reward when she fails to sit still enough. Alone with the ambassador, who is inquiring about her husband, Elodie realizes “that he could easily turn and press me up against the damp stone wall, while he unbuckled his expensive belt, pulled up my skirt, and no one would ever know.” She waits to be acted upon, but also takes ever more daring steps to provoke what she wants, though she doesn’t always get it.
At times, it all feels like an exhilaratingly wicked game, though the devastating potential for Elodie and the town is clear from start, accentuated throughout by insinuations of violence, even in casual observations — olives are “rammed on sticks” at Violet’s party, crabs lie “smashed” on the concrete seafront by seagulls, the wind is in her face “like a slap.” Looking back, Elodie admits that she is scared of “the possibilities of what I remember opening up in a way I know could destroy me.”
Such destruction is a distinct possibility for the novel’s readers as well, but it’s a real comfort to feel that no matter how much pain Elodie’s vulnerability may cause her, Mackintosh cares for her as much as we do.
CURSED BREAD: A Novel
By Sophie Mackintosh
Doubleday, 208 pages, $27
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.