The Bread the Devil Knead, Lisa Allen-Agostini’s debut adult novel, is narrated by Alethea, a Trinidadian woman in her late thirties who lives with a violent partner, Leo. She’s repeating patterns she learnt in childhood from a neglectful mother and abusive uncle, and while she dreams of managing her own clothing boutique, this seems unlikely to ever happen while she’s under Leo’s control. The Trinidadian Creole that Alethea narrates in is the best aspect of this novel; while I didn’t understand all the words and phrases used, this wasn’t a problem, and I was introduced to a lot of brilliantly vivid vernacular: ‘dayclean’; ‘when me and Tamika eye make four’; ‘she skin up she face’. Unfortunately, pretty much nothing else about this worked for me. It reads like simplistic women’s fiction. There’s almost no characterisation except for Alethea herself, and even she is thinly drawn; from other reviews, I’d expected her voice to be funnier and more memorable. The Bread The Devil Knead is reminiscent of one of last year’s Women’s Prize shortlistees, Cherie Jones’s How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, but lacks its fluid writing and rich, complex cast. It also reminded me of another 2022 longlistee I did not like, Miranda Cowley Heller’s The Paper Palace: both books deal with familial child abuse and how abusive relationships are transmitted from generation to generation (and, bizarrely, both feature a scene where the protagonist-as-little-girl wets herself because her mother is too keen to impress to take her to the toilet). Like The Paper Palace, The Bread the Devil Knead has very little new to say, which makes its recital of pain feel gratuitous, and it’s even more badly written. My least favourite title on the Women’s Prize longlist so far.
I’ve been putting off reading Sorrow and Bliss, Meg Mason’s second novel, because it didn’t sound like my thing: I was worried it would be another Disaster Woman novel in the vein of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times; plus, much as I think books that focus on personal struggles with mental illness are important and necessary, I rarely enjoy reading them. So this was an unexpected hit, even though I still don’t think I loved it quite as much as other readers did. I enjoyed the first two-thirds of Sorrow and Bliss, but I was expecting the protagonist Martha’s voice to get wearing, as funny, ironic narrative voices often do. I adored Martha’s relationship with sister Ingrid but the other characters felt sketchier; Martha’s relationship with her mother, in particular, felt like it came from a less acerbic Gwendoline Riley novella. In the final third, however, Mason pulls off something quite special as Martha confronts her true diagnosis and with it a reckoning of how she has both wronged others and been wronged. We see that if we felt like we didn’t quite get the rest of the cast before, that’s because Martha has been holding them at arms-length. While Mason heartbreakingly conveys the moment when Martha realises she’s been denying herself what she really wants, I was also disappointed that this revelation turned her character back towards convention. However, this undoubtedly works well for this particular novel, as we share in Martha’s devastation and self-deception. As Martha grows in self-knowledge, so does this book; Mason’s writing starts off clever but a little glib, and becomes much more brilliant as it goes on. I particularly loved this exchange between Ingrid and Martha near the end of the novel:
“I can’t just think of something else and decide to want that instead.”
Ingrid said yes you can. “Even the women who get those things lose them again. Husbands die and children grow up and marry someone you hate… Everything goes away eventually, and women are always the last ones standing so we just make up something else to want.”
I hope and expect to see this novel on the Women’s Prize shortlist.
I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers nine and ten. I’ve already read Great Circle, The Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote Sympathy, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev and Build Your House Around My Body.