Cursed Bread | Sophie Mackintosh #UKfiction

When I recall the first time I met Violet, it embarrasses me. I hold the memories up to the light and think – did it really happen like this? And even if it did, why not tell it differently? More generously? Why don’t I pretend, even to myself? There’s nobody left to know, nobody who could catch me out.

At work, a copy of Cursed Bread had been sitting on our dedicated ARC shelf in the office for about a month, when it suddenly got longlisted for the Women’s Prize. Naturally, I took it out to lunch with me the very same day. I knew nothing else about the book or the author.

A few pages in, something twigged that this story may have been based on something real. I turned to the back page and found the author’s note,

In the summer of 1951, the small French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit succumbed to a mass poisoning. There were many theories regarding the source of this catastrophe. None have ever been proved.

Naturally I had to know more.

I needed to know what the various theories were so I could see how Mackintosh deviated from or played around with the established facts as well as the speculation. I also spotted that Mackinstosh was from Wales, and thought great! I can add this book to my Dewithon, Reading Wales plans as well (that part went well; the reviewing part, not so much!)

The Wikipedia page tells us that beginning on the 16th August 1951 a poisoning event, known as Le Pain Maudit, affected 250 people from Pont-Saint-Esprit. Seven people died while fifty ended up in an asylum. It was believed to be a food-based poisoning via tainted flour used at the local bakery, hence ‘cursed bread’. Symptoms initially included nausea, vomiting, cold chills and heat waves. As the symptoms worsened the patients also experienced hallucinatory crises and convulsions. By the night of the 24th of August, things had deteriorated for a number of the people in town, “a man believed himself to be an aeroplane and died by jumping from a second-story window, and an 11-year-old boy tried to strangle his mother.

It was believed that the flour used to make the bread was contaminated with a fungus Claviceps purpurea (ergot) “structurally similar to the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)“. Other theories included mercury poisoning, nitrogen trichloride (which was sometimes used to illegally bleach flour) and more bizarrely, a covert CIA operation to see what would happen if LSD was used in biological warfare.

Mackintosh sticks with the basic premise and known facts. That is, the poisoning event began thanks to contaminated flour. The rest you will have to discover for yourself!

Elodie is the baker’s wife. Her story is told in flashbacks and via letters. From the first letter to Violet we are aware that Elodie has survived whatever happened, although her recovery has required a year-long convalescence in a quiet place by the sea. She reveals that her marriage to the baker was not particularly saitisfying and that the post-war austerity in France was wearing thin. When the rather exotic, glamorous Violet and her enigmatic husband arrive in town, Elodie is drawn to them.

Sometimes I find myself tied around the throat with a hot thread of panic at the inevitability of the days.

Ever since reading Voss last year, I have been sensitive to references about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. On page sixteen Mackintosh describes Elodie and her husband meeting Violet and her husband at their home for the first time. They have an awkward discussion about the ‘real people of this country‘ and how to truly know them before Mackintosh highlights the uneven, moving ‘shadows on the wall‘ created by the flickering candlelight. From then on I read this story as allegory – reality versus interpretation or perhaps false reality versus enlightenment. It depends on which way you look at it, a matter of perspective.

Mackintosh then takes us on a slightly sinister, slightly erotic, rather intense diversion into who is being manipulated by whom.

Cursed Bread reads like a fairytale or a cautionary fable, warning us about the risks of obsession and strangers. Like all good fairytales, the threat of violence and danger is never far away. Mackintosh uses foreboding language to convey a sense of menace and impending peril – ‘murdering my marriage with familiarity‘, ‘my desire like a ragged hole in my chest‘ and ‘olives rammed on sticks‘.

In the end, it comes down to trust and memory. Who do you trust, and whose memories, whose stories do you believe?

Perhaps you can walk a thing away, or walk yourself away, wear yourself into a slip of sinew. The trick is forgetting for one moment and then forgetting for another moment and then look, the moments run together like a string of beads, and there is heartbreak in the forgetting of heartbreak, in the forgetting of pain, which returns bright and pulsing regardless of the seconds it has been put aside….Pain becomes an animal, walking at your side. Pain becomes a home you can carry with you.


Nothing’s gone, not really. Everything that’s ever happened has left its little wound.

Sarah Manguso | Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015)

According to wikipedia, Manguso kept a journal for 25 years. In Ongoingness, she “explores and reflects upon her reasons and motivations for journaling – her obsessive need to document every incident in her life because she was afraid she would forget the details later“.

I journaled throughout my twenties and thirties for the same reason. I even spent a year expanding on my travel diary from 1991 (the year I was a nanny in London and traveled around Great Britain and Europe when and as I could). I was worried that my brief notes, ticket stubs and old photos weren’t going to be enough. The year I got my first home computer and bought a house (2000) I journaled to my heart’s content, as I wasn’t sure when or if I would ever be able to afford overseas travel again!

I’m now rather keen to track down this book.


  • Sophie Mackintosh was born in South Wales. She is bilingual and cites Welsh mythology and Angela Carter as her early influences.
  • Barbara Comyns wrote her third novel, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954) about this tragic event (as an aside Cursed Bread is also Mackintosh’s third novel).
The US cover looks like this!

Favourite of Forget: A gripping story, full of sensual tension and dread.

Title: Cursed Bread
Author: Sophie Mackintosh
ISBN: 9780241539620
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
Published: 2 March 2023
Format: Paperback
Pages: 184
Dates Read: 9 March 2023 - 18 March 2023
Origin: ARC
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

10 thoughts on “Cursed Bread | Sophie Mackintosh #UKfiction

  1. I could ask have any French novelists told this story? But what I really want to know is are you going to use your journals to write autofiction? I have always known I would not be an author because I lacked the compulsion to keep any but the most basic diary.


    1. The one big thing keeping a journal for nearly twenty years taught me Bill, is that I am not a writer! I dabbled, tried some different approaches etc but I rarely read back what I read with pleasure. I wasn’t writing a journal to write, I was writing to get stuff out in the hope it would stop festering away! Cheaper than counselling in the end 🙂
      I took it as a good sign when I no longer needed to journal.

      I did try to find a French version of this story, but other than some bizarre articles and one non-fiction book about madness through the ages, I found nothing else. The interweb, you won’t be surprised to know, loves the CIA theory!


  2. I remember borrowing from the library and then reading with huge fascination The day of St Anthony’s fire (1968) by John Fuller when I was barely in my 20s, so every time this novel’s mentioned or ‘ergot poisoning’ is referenced (as suggested in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s recent novel The Dance Tree) I think of the vivid images conjured up by that study of the 1950s incident.


    1. Ahhh, that’s the non-fiction book I just mentioned to Bill above – thank you – I had forgotten it’s name. It sounds fascinating. Like you, I will now be sensitive to ‘ergot poisoning’ references in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve not been tempted to read this book — shallow justification coming up – because I am so sick of book covers with pictures of women in poses of resignation, their faces obscured by hair or flowers or whatever. It was intriguing the first time; now every second book seems to do it. It’s become tired.

    Also: I journaled through most of my 20s to get stuff out of my head. My mother burned them all (don’t ask!) so I can never go back to see the shite I wrote about (probably a good thing).


    1. I hear you about covers – they do make a difference – so I’ve added the US cover to the post now for you to see just how different they went with theirs.

      I’m very curious about the burning, but won’t ask. It was probably a blessing. I kept mine for ages, went through them a couple of times. But each time thought less of them. They really were just an outpouring of angst. I binned mine not that long ago and felt much freer knowing they were no longer hanging around.


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