Recently I was out with a friend who wanted to see “The New York Earth Room,” an interior earth sculpture by Walter De Maria created in 1977. Spanning some 3600 square feet in a SoHo loft space, this installation in an otherwise empty dimly lit room features 250 cubic yards of dark, almost black, earth twenty-two inches deep. There is no sound and very little light. It’s supposed to be a calming experience. For me, the experience of viewing this installation was immediately reminiscent of my first read of Sophie Mackintosh’s new novel, Cursed Bread—a slowly rising suffocation mixed with a hint of deep existential dread without clear cause. As Cursed Bread moves through alternating chapters, shifting back and forth through time, there is a slowly accumulating experience of vertiginous panic. Loosely based on a historical event—the mass poisoning in 1951 in the small French village Pont-Saint-Esprit—Cursed Bread is a serpentine tale of repressed desire, small town power struggles, and a people desperately trying to live past the trauma of World War II. While there are various theories about the historical poisoning (ergot and/or chemically poisoned flour being the most likely), Mackintosh seems to draw from a combination including the widely debunked theory of an early CIA experiment with LSD.
The story is told entirely from the baker’s wife Elodie’s point of view in flashbacks interspersed with a series of letters she writes to the seductive and glamorous Violet. The book opens with Elodie describing the first time she met Violet “I could say a lot of things, but perhaps it’s best to be honest, now.” We never know what is true and what is Elodie’s fabrication. Elodie lives a mundane life selling her husband’s bread, sometimes baking her own, and serving as unofficial repository to all the secrets of her neighbors. An intelligent and passionate woman trapped in a loveless marriage, she tells us that, “Sometimes, not very often, I found myself tied around the throat with a hot thread of panic at the inevitability of the days.” Perhaps to relieve her boredom or find a focus for her desire, Elodie becomes obsessed with a new woman in town Violet and her husband, an American referred to only as “the ambassador.” From the first day Elodie meets her, “Violet haunted my thoughts.” In her first letter to Violet, Elodie mentions that she is in a “convalescent place by the sea” where she is visited by policemen who “always want me to give my account of events.” But Elodie is a slippery narrator and truth is relative with her, “I won’t talk, because the only truth I could tell them is that sometimes there is a switch, and the world is turned upside down.”
Elodie enters into Violet’s life when she’s invited to a party at the ambassador’s house. Her husband and the other men of the town get drunk and Elodie sees the ambassador begin to strangle Violet in the kitchen, “or was it an illusion?” It’s a question that the reader asks throughout the novel. Violet invites Elodie to sit with her and the ambassador explains why they are in such a small town—it’s for a government project, “to learn more about the real people of this country. To truly get to know them, the citizens who make it what it is.” Already there is a suspicion that these two don’t mean well. When Elodie asks Violet how she and the ambassador met, the couple tells a story—clearly a lie —about a wedding and a murder and this inspires Elodie to create her own lie with her husband about their first meeting. Later, drunk, she sneaks upstairs to watch Violet and the ambassador in their bedroom. She is filled with desire for both of them but overhears, “You are not a well person, I heard the ambassador say, or thought I did.” The couple discusses the baker, Elodie’s husband, and her repressed desire shifts away from him “This was my first clumsy fantasy of them, and maybe love began for me here.” Despite this shift, Elodie grieves her husband’s lack of desire for her amidst all their post-war plenty, “And this made it worse, the idea that he wanted for nothing, and it was just me who was alone with my desire like a ragged hole in my chest.” And so, she sets about filling that hole with fantasy.
As alternating chapters, written as letters to Violet, parse out, we’re given more detail—first the visiting policemen, then “Sometimes in the last year I have been known to tell people I am from the town where the man cut out his own heart…” and we know something terrible has happened but, already, we don’t trust Elodie and can’t know what is truth and what is fabrication. In the direct-action sections, the past unspools as Elodie describes the forward movement of her relationship with Violet—visits to the bakery, then personal invitations to the ambassador’s house which Elodie sees as growing friendship rather than what she later suggests were Violet’s bored manipulations, “your time there quickly became a series of games.” But Elodie is also hesitant to lay blame, instead writing in one of her letters, “What have I done? you asked me sometimes, never what has been done to me?” This is a story that calls for sharp attention to detail to dropped hints, to repeated phrases, not just to understand the ending but to understand these two women and their different experiences of reality and desire—how desire blurred reality for both. As one instance among many, Violet arrives at the bakery urging Elodie to come with her to see something which turns out to be the horrific site of eight dead horses—bodies rotting in the sun. For Violet, the site is special, secret, revelatory but for Elodie, it is a reminder of the horrors of war and perhaps a harbinger of tragedy to come.
Gradually, the information in Elodie’s letters turns darker, “Twelve people still in the asylum. No further deaths. I reminded them of my own husband, lying in the graveyard.” This dire information colors any future narrative of the two women’s friendship with questions about motive and murder. When the village women in a frenzy try on Violet’s clothes at the lavoir (communal laundry)—splitting seams and ripping fabric—we can’t help but link this frenzy with Elodie’s mentions of “the asylum” and her own possible guilt “sometimes I wake up and once more am the creature I was on that day.” In the present, Elodie writes to Violet that she’s met a man who comes to visit her and then, despite acknowledging a possibility for happiness, Elodie shifts again to thoughts of Violet: “We’re back to that idea of obliteration, Violet. What could ever be enough?”
As the town celebrates the midsummer festival with roast pig and beer and bonfires, Elodie is consumed with desire—for her husband, for Violet, for Violet’s husband—but feels no release. She feels isolated by the townspeople’s constant use of her as confessional, and trapped in the life she’s made for herself. The boys and girls of the town leap over embers from one of the bonfires, until an unknown boy from another town runs straight into the flames of a larger bonfire and yet, Elodie writes, “It’s important to remember that, despite past catastrophes, our world was undeniably good.” And when she discovers a strange bottle of liquid in her husband’s pockets, she feels vindicated—finally, she’s caught him in a secret, a lie. But instead, it only turns out to be a special additive to make bread whiter “the one they use in America. The ambassador sourced it for me.” Elodie is disappointed in “the smallness of his secrets.” She attempts to seduce him but he rejects her again and she acknowledges that “He felt more for his bread that he would ever feel for me.”
The ambassador shows up at the bakery and begins to visit her, to make overtures, but again, we can’t know the truth as Elodie writes to Violet, “No longer being shackled to reality has its benefits… When I want to I can imagine it differently, the audacity of memory can be staggering, the liberties I can take and the things I can give myself.” Elodie’s own dark jealousy begins to take shape—she makes a tart for Violet, mixing crushed glass into the sugar but Violet seems unharmed “as if my sharp little gift had been a cure.” When the ambassador doesn’t show for a prearranged liaison at a hotel, Elodie shows up at Violet’s house where Violet is in a bad way but then her viciousness is laid bare and Elodie escapes into a town gone mad. In one of her final letters to Violet, Elodie writes, “I think that all those slow and meaningless secrets gave me pleasure because they distracted from the larger terror of it all. They reduced it to something manageable and understandable; easier the mouthful of blood than the world in flames.” When Elodie finally reveals her version of what happened in the village, it’s both shocking and yet, a release of the building tension—similar to Elodie’s own release experienced in her last moments with her husband who lies dying from possibly poisoned bread. It’s a brilliant scene, with her husband fleshy and sweating and begging for her help. Elodie brings him bread and milk and feeds him the “cursed bread” (an ancient form of trial by ordeal—if the accused chokes or grows ill from eating the bread, they are presumed guilty.) Elodie feeds her husband asking him “What have you done?” recalling the earlier refrain to Violet, “What have I done? you asked me sometimes, never what has been done to me?” The novel ends with the ambassador disappearing into non-existence and Violet holding all of the blame and possibly drowned in the river by the townspeople but, as with all of Elodie’s story, it’s impossible to know what is truth and what is instead, like desire, caught “in the spaces around the known, where things are at their most and least real.” This is a difficult and brilliant read.