cw: Addiction, Eating Disorders, Abusive Relationships
Linda Stift’s The Empress and The Cake is the latest release from Peirene Press, masters of translated European novellas.
The Empress and The Cake follows a young lady who becomes entangled in the grasp of a strange elderly lady with a mysterious past and a penchant for emotional manipulation. Soon after being tempted by the offer of half a Gugelhupf, the young narrator is manipulated into museum raids and destructive behaviour, only to see herself start to unravel before failing to escape the abusive nature of the relationship.
One of the most interesting things about this book is the dynamic between the central characters. Not only is it brilliant to see a novel that is so centralised around women – in fact there are very few men in this novel at all – but these women are built so complexly. It shouldn’t be such a shock to the system to read a book so dedicated to them, but with this book in particular, the way in which the women are written with so much power and complexity is utterly intoxicating.
The narrator herself is perhaps the most interesting of the women. Stift’s narrator, whilst speaking so clearly to the reader about her experiences and thoughts, still holds so much mystery. I am not used to having the narrator of a novel keep secrets from me, and the deliberate withholding of information played brilliantly into the novel’s themes and plot. Even after finishing the book, I have so many questions. Who is the narrator? Why is she so insular and isolated?
And Charlotte – who is she? The narrator constantly mentions her like we should know who she is, but we never do. Is she their sister? Their friend? Their lover?
But my questions extend beyond the narrator: Who is Frau Hohenembs? Is she the Empress? Did she know the Empress? Or is she just some imposter? How did she start this scheme of hers? Is Ida the first to fall for it, or have there been more before now?
Another thing that fascinates me about The Empress and The Cake, is the blunt and unabashed way it discusses addiction and addictive behaviour. The parallels between the two addictions in this novel – the repetitive over eating and punishing rituals and the constant return to an abusive relationship – are hard to miss. The narrator’s discussion of bulimia, whilst not naming the eating disorder directly, is without a doubt one of the most confronting I have read in fiction. The doubling of the addictive behaviour – the bulimia and the addictive subservience to the emotionally abusive Frau Hohenembs – is entwined throughout the whole novel, and makes the characters seem more mysterious. We have so little history of them, and yet, here they are, wrapped up in one of the most complex mental states. Furthermore, the description of the central relationship and its abusive behaviour and its effects on those involved is incredibly nuanced. The failure of the narrator and Ida to escape the hold of Frau Hohenembs despite their best efforts is perhaps the most honest representation of the destructive and impossible situation that an abusive relationship presents – no matter how much you want to escape, it is not always that easy.
This book is so incredibly mysterious and complex, and I am definitely going to go for a re-read soon to try and decode this strange modern Austrian fable. My review does not do it any justice, so I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book as soon as you can.
The Empress and The Cake is available in all good bookstores, or directly from Peirene Press. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from and support their local independent bookstores and support independent press.
Thank you once again to Peirene Press for sending me a copy of The Empress and The Cake. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.
© Hayley New 2016