Plain, unremarkable and deeply unsatisfied with her life and marriage to the local baker, Elodie is captivated by a sophisticated new couple in her small town – the ambassador and his enchanting wife, Violet. Inserting herself into their lives, Elodie is equally disgusted by and infatuated with the couple as she eavesdrops on their unusual lives. Meanwhile, strange things are happening in the small community – a boy runs into a bonfire, six horses are found dead in a field, and widows see their lost husbands walking up the moonlit river. A dark hysteria is spreading and Elodie is beginning to understand her part in it. Sophie Mackintosh is the the Booker Prize-nominated author of The Water Cure and Blue Ticket. In her intoxicating third novel, inspired by real events, she returns to themes of womanhood and desire.
Tell us about the real life story that inspired Cursed Bread, how you heard about it and how much of the true story informed the novel.
Years ago I was idly scrolling through Twitter when I came across a tweet about an event stranger than fiction: a mass poisoning of a French village. It sounded so intriguing, and I read a bit more about it before filing it away at the back of my imagination. The story always had a hold on me though – particularly the fact that it was linked to some outlandish theories, from poisoned flour to a CIA mind control experiment. Gradually the main characters of the story started to take shape for me: a charismatic and shadowy ambassador, his glamorous wife, and the wife of the baker, unsatisfied with her lot and captivated by this new couple. I read a lot about the poisoning, but all my novel is totally fictional, except for my borrowing some of the reported hallucinations – I used it more as a springboard, rather than approaching it as a retelling.
Why did you choose not to root the story in a specific time or place?
I wanted it to have a timeless, fable-like feel to match the strangeness of the story. So much is about what’s real and not real, what is fact and imagined, the stories we tell ourselves and the events of our lives that actually happen. Writing it in the pandemic – I started in January 2020 – felt strangely fitting actually, as so much of what I took for granted was turned upside down, and everything turned claustrophobic and strange. In all my work I like to borrow from genres rather than feel committed to the tropes and conventions of one in particular. I wanted it to feel not like a traditional historical novel, but like a story that could happen any time.
Elodie has a traditional and unfulfilling marriage but her interior life, language and attitudes towards sex are liberated for the time it appears to be set in. Would it have been unusual for a woman in her position?
I think it probably was unusual, at least outwardly, but I didn’t want to reduce her or underestimate her. I thought, why wouldn’t it be possible for someone who was a provincial baker’s wife to also have a deeply rich inner life, to experience desire that’s so many things – passionate, instinctive, shameful? From the start she as a character had this liveliness and zest and longing that didn’t feel incompatible with her exterior presentation.
Elodie’s obsession with Violet veers between admiration, detestation and infatuation. Why are female friendships in particular so intense and do you have any favourites from literature?
There is something about the intimacy they share, verging on the sexual, which is both intoxicating and sickening to Elodie. Intimacy between friends can often feel so powerful – maybe because there aren’t necessarily the rules and outlets we have in romantic relationships, or the boundaries feel more permeable. It’s about your integral self, your secret self, and to have that seen and understood can feel so powerful – and to have it seen and rejected can feel utterly devastating.
In literature I think my favourite (or certainly the one I find most interesting) female friendship is between the unnamed narrator of Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline and Frédérique, a remote character that she develops an obsessive fixation with. Set against the background of a boarding school, it’s so complex and claustrophobic. I am also a big fan of the central friendship in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series.
Violet is ostensibly powerful but is ultimately scapegoated for her husband’s wrongs. Why is this significant?
There was no question to me that the ambassador would be able to get away with his activities in a way that Violet would not be allowed to so much, in terms of societal expectation and her own position. She is an object of fascination for the village, but also of fear, and in a way she’s an easy target.
Cursed Bread is your third novel. Are there overarching themes that concern you and connect the three, and if so what compels you to return to them?
I’m realising more and more that I keep returning to desire, however that manifests in the work. A propulsive need and passion is so often the catalyst for my characters. In Cursed Bread it’s not just desire for a person themselves, but also what they represent – how through them Elodie can somehow access another world, another life. I’m interested in both the transformative and destructive potential of desire too, how it connects to our sense of selves and our sense of shame.