Booker Prize-nominated author, Sophie Mackintosh’s “Cursed Bread”, based on a real-life unsolved mystery, tells the story of Elodie, a modest, staid woman who finds herself smitten by a mysterious, charismatic new couple who move into town: the Ambassador and his acerbic wife, Violet.
Inexplicably consumed by the newcomers’ intriguing lifestyle and the stories they spin, she can’t help herself from stalking them, eavesdropping on their cryptic conversations, and pining to find a place in their lives.
Meanwhile, beneath the seemingly placid surface of daily life, bizarre things start to unfold: whether it be a group of horses found dead in a nearby field, carefully arranged like a sacrificial offering, or widows sighting their lost husbands walking along the moonlit river, having returned to reclaim them. As this disquieting hysteria grips the town, the reader is presented with a series of cleverly interspersed cryptic mental notes-to-self written by Elodie after the fact (addressed to Violet) which provide just enough insight to help us try and piece together what might be going on.
Despite being loosely inspired by the curious true case of mass poisoning in the French village of Pont-Saint-Esprit, which was originally believed to have been caused by “cursed bread” (“pain maudit”), MacKintosh uses this specific plot point as a springboard by which to provide a fascinating meditation on the myriad differences that exist between residents of small-town communities and life in the big city, and how the collision of these two worlds engenders envy, hatred, voyeurism and a long list of etceteras, all of which here spark unexpected desirous desires.
Mackintosh emphasises the prevalence of small-town gossip as the residents paint their own portrait of how the newly-arrived couple’s life really plays out behind closed doors. And the image they render between themselves serves the reader as a reminder of just how seamlessly our imagination and perspectives can evolve into realities over time, as the stories we tell ourselves – and each other – are passed on, distorted, and archived.
Whilst Violet is particularly reserved and prefers to keep to herself, she strikes up a curious relationship with Elodie, who, fascinated by how the other half lives, attends to both Violet and her husband’s beck and call; whilst Violet’s husband has no qualms when it comes to throwing himself headlong into village life, mixing with the locals in the local pub, albeit playing much more of a spectator role in the nightly banter.
Elodie’s new relationship – and her deteriorating relationship with her own husband – serves as the perfect springboard to shed light on her own and Violet’s respective marriages and how their lives up to that point have defined their conception of what marriage entails. This segues into an intriguing meditation on marriage and how married life transforms over time and how people’s perspectives, and memories, of their respective partners can change so dramatically with the passing of time.
But, regardless of all the aforementioned bonding, Elodie soon starts to suspect that there is something far more sinister afoot than the locals’ gossip might suggest; an unsettling notion that is buoyed brilliantly through Elodie’s aforementioned feverish and ambiguous flashbacks that make the book so irresistible; deftly peppered throughout the book to amass murder mystery tropes in the fold. This said, however, the book strays significantly away from pretty much any murder mystery books this reader has ever read as Mackintosh reinvents whodunit tropes in such an ingenious way that is sure to keep readers guessing, hungry to find out there Mackintosh’s meticulously placed trail of breadcrumbs leads to.
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton // Publishes: March 2, 2023