Wednesday, 19 October 2016
The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift
review by Maryom
Passing by a Viennese cake shop a young woman is enticed into sharing a Gugelhupf cake with an elderly lady dressed in a strange antiquated style, from head to toe in black. Normally this young woman is very conscious of what she eats, its calories and sugar levels, but somehow her usual objections fade when faced with the formidable Frau Hohenembs. The two new acquaintances head back to Frau Hohenembs' apartment, a space filled with strange curios and shared by parrots, an Irish wolfhound and a plump, equally black-clad, housekeeper, Ida.
There they share Frau Hohenembs' half of the cake, and the narrator finds herself being pulled into the life of this very strange and manipulative woman. They go for walks with the dog or visit museums - all very normal on the surface, but Frau Hohenembs is following a bizarre agenda, attacking and stealing items associated with the Empress Elisabeth, and the narrator feels compelled to go along with her plans.
Interleaved with this ongoing narrative, are reminiscences about the Empress Elisabeth by one of her loyal servants; a relationship which bears striking resemblances to that between Frau Hohenembs and Ida.
How would I describe The Empress and the Cake? Well, it's part subtle, tense psychological thriller but also an examination of addiction and loss of control. The Narrator (she's never named) has a history of eating disorders, of binge-eating and purging, which has been in abeyance for fifteen years, but which returns immediately after her first meeting with Frau Hohenembs. Throughout, she claims to be in charge of herself and the situation, believing she could walk away any time she chooses, but the reader can see that this is far from true; some part of her has come to rely on Frau Hohenembs, to need her dictating what to do and when.
The Empress and The Cake is part of Peirene's fairy tale series and Frau Hohenembs has at least a hint of the old crone, or even wicked witch, of folk tales about her; luring the innocent in with tempting food only to enslave them, or, as in the case of Hansel and Gretel, eat them!
Additional thoughts - when I read this I knew I was reminded of something else, a recent novel dealing with manipulation of one woman by another, but couldn't pinpoint it at the time. It's Alison Moore's Death and the Seaside which has threads of the power of naming, and suggestibility, rather than addiction but the two are interesting to read together
Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction