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Cursed Bread By Sophie Mackintosh – Sex, Death And Baking

Three books in, we can begin to say that there are traits in Sophie Mackintosh’s novels which are particularly Mackintoshian. The image of a woman with a man’s hand around her throat. The attendant sexual violence that image suggests. A veil thrown over questions of time and location that lends both prose and plot a gauzy, fever-dream quality. That gauzy quality is likewise aided by a set of strict rules established for each story world, and momentum in Mackintosh’s novels is usually the result of those structures dissolving. What happens when three girls raised on an island away from men are finally confronted with them, as in The Water Cure, or the progress of a woman who has chosen to have a child in a country where she has been forbidden from doing so by a fertility lottery (Blue Ticket).

Cursed Bread is a quietly rich maturation of Mackintosh’s skill, set in a semi-rural postwar French town. It is narrated by Elodie, a woman of indeterminate age. She is married to a passionless baker, provider of the titular bread – a man who touches her around four times a year and is usually too drunk to stay hard if they have sex. When she watches his still-strong hands kneading dough each day, one can see why Elodie might be dissatisfied with life. “Perhaps I’ll throw myself off a bridge or bake myself into a pie, what do you think?” she asks her husband brightly one afternoon. He shrugs. They attend a midsummer festival instead. To some extent, it is the small churn of bucolic domesticity that endows this novel with the uncanny quality also present in Mackintosh’s other books – this is a world in which women wash clothes at the lavoir, make confession on Sundays, faithfully aid their husbands’ work as butchers or grocers. “Sometimes,” Elodie recounts, “not very often, I found myself tied around the throat with a hot thread of panic at the inevitability of the days.”

Enter diamond-adorned Violet and her husband, “the ambassador”. They have moved into the town’s only mansion at the behest of the government to carry out a survey of its citizens. Somewhat predictably, the arrival of two glamorous wealthy strangers begins to upset things. At the lavoir, women pore over Violet’s silk blouses and ribboned knickers. They speculate about the expense of her groceries until rumour inevitably replaces fact – Violet is a “whore”; Violet was once “mad”. If you take into account the backdrop of recently shelled buildings, you can reason a link between this kind of bitchiness in the face of material wealth and the deprivation the town has endured. This is a book about the power desire and greed exert over reality and memory: its characters recoil, necessarily, from the harsh considerations of sociopolitical infrastructure that manufacture their circumstance.

Violet and Elodie become friends. Part of the novel is epistolary: we learn, in dribs and drabs, that Elodie now resides by the seaside, that most of the town, including her husband, have perished, and that she and Violet no longer speak. Parsing this information for clues has limited value – if the title Cursed Bread isn’t enough of an indicator, then lines such as “eat the bread and you’ll die” provide the backstory. It is more fun, instead, to consider the complex web of desires between the two couples: Elodie wants to sleep with Violet because Violet might want to sleep with the baker, which also means the ambassador flirts with Elodie, and this only increases Elodie’s desire to sleep with the baker. If this sounds deliciously horny, that’s because it is. There’s also a nastiness with which the characters inveigle their way into each other’s lives: Elodie steals Violet’s makeup and clothes; Violet takes pleasure in lying to Elodie. This violence soon spills over to the town at large in the form of a field of dead horses, ghosts, a boy who throws himself into a bonfire.

In Mackintosh’s previous novels, I have sometimes wondered to what end such violence truly works. At their heart, her books are concerned with the politics of gender, the suffering those structures induce. But their male characters are too thinly and unforgivingly painted; there is no easy point of access for men to understand the women tortured, while for female readers the imaginative framework of The Water Cure and Blue Ticket seldom extends beyond blunt force trauma. Few of us need reminding of all the ways it is terrible to be a woman in the world. Cursed Bread presents a subtler rendering of how enough desperation behind the words “I want” can make one ill, and is all the more gripping for it. “What would ever be enough?” Elodie despairs midway through. “Perhaps my desire is always going to turn on me, snap at my hand even when I’ve fed it, twist it into new and unruly shapes.” In attending to these shapes, Mackintosh has entered a brilliant new stage of writing.

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Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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