Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh is a wonderfully enigmatic and mesmerising read, by an author whose presence sings from the Granta Best Young British Novelists 2023 list. An acknowledged purveyor of disquieting fiction, here Mackintosh introduces us to Elodie, a frustrated baker’s wife in post-war provincial France. Spending her days mired in gossip and domesticity, the bored young woman is ripe for seduction. It comes in the form of a dashing young ambassador and his wife, the beautiful and damaged Violet, their arrival heralding a sultry, sexy summer, and a rash of darkly peculiar goings on.
Elodie’s recollection of events is punctuated with letters that she has addressed to ‘Dear Violet’. Early letters tell us that she is now ensconced in a convalescent home, the subject of intense police interest, in pain and beseeching.
‘Dear Violet…how do I fill my hours without you? I picture you picturing me.’
She takes us back to the beginning, before the madness descends, a ‘serene and bovine’ Elodie toiling away in the bakery and reflecting on the incestuous nature of small town life, a place of sordid secrets and stifling convention. When Violet arrives with her husband on a wave of worldly sophistication, Elodie falls in love with Violet and covertly desires her charismatic husband.
In her tale of desire and ambiguity, Mackintosh weaves a spell around the reader. Elodie is an unreliable narrator and we’re never quite sure where we stand with Violet. She appears to befriend Elodie, inviting her to a housewarming party.
At the weekly lavoir, as the local women wash their own laundry and are commissioned to wash the couples’ too, they speculate on the newcomers’ life and beg Elodie to report back. All the while, greedily rifling through the silken delights of Violet’s laundry, her lace-trimmed lingerie and pearlescent buttons.
As a social inferior, Elodie has no expectations of intimacy with the couple, but at the party, the ambassador gives her a loaded look, ‘illuminated with dizzying possibilities,’ and Violet initiates a friendship that will see the two women spending increasing amounts of time together, on countryside walks where she shares her traumatic history, and in private moments, where she shares something else entirely.
There is a toad in her heart, she tells Elodie. At least that’s what her mother used to say.
‘Something in Violet started to show. Something in the gleam of her eyes…’
And slowly the entire town is unhinging. Dead horses laid out in a field, local residents throwing themselves down stairs and into bonfires, succumbing to mass hysteria and insane asylums.
As self-appointed archivist and secret keeper, Elodie’s letters to Violet are retrospectively revealing of her haunted self. Yet the truth is always tantalisingly out of reach in Mackintosh’s beguiling, erotically charged novel.
An author’s note tells us that the story is inspired by true events in the French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in1951, when residents succumbed to mass poisoning and hallucination. The afflicted had one thing in common. Look up the case details and be discombobulated by yet another delicious and unsettling layer to this tantalising tale.
Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh is published by Hamish Hamilton, 192 pages.