The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift (translated by Jamie Bulloch): Not as sweet as you might think

the-empress-and-the-cakeGiven that two jaunts that have taken me to Vienna this year, Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake seemed an obvious choice. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with excellent fiction. Part of Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, Stift’s novella comes beautifully packaged in delicate pink and cream but beware: as we all know from the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales are often far from sweet and this one’s no exception.

Our unnamed narrator finds herself accosted by a black-clad woman, not unlike the Empress Elisabeth, perusing the delights of a Viennese patisserie window. A gugelhupf is far too much for her, would the young lady like to share one? Our narrator reluctantly agrees, then Frau Hohenembs, as she introduces herself, explains that even half is too much, insisting that her new acquaintance comes back to her apartment for coffee and cake. Once there, our narrator meets Ida, plump and dressed in what looks a little like a doctor’s coat. Sadly for her, this incident triggers a binging episode, fifteen years after she thought she’d rid herself of her eating disorder. A few days later, hearing rustling outside her door, she opens it to finds Ida encamped in her hallway – Frau Hohenembs is insisting on her presence. As she becomes entangled in Frau Hohenembs’ increasingly baroque schemes, horrified as her persecutor filches bits and pieces from the city’s museums including the royal cocaine syringe, she loses her battle with food, caught up in  grim cycle of binging and purging.

Stift’s novella is a thought-provoking tale of madness, delusion and addiction, an exploration of the way in which the mind is able to construct elaborate and convincing scenarios for itself. Her writing is vivid, often graphically harrowing but there’s a rich vein of dark humour running through it. The coked-up dog and chorusing parrots add a particularly striking dash of lunatic comedy to the proceedings. Not a toothsome tale then but certainly an original and disturbing one which will stay with me for quite some time.

13 thoughts on “The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift (translated by Jamie Bulloch): Not as sweet as you might think

    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      It certainly is! Such an inventive approach to portraying how the mind can play such frightening tricks but very funny as well.

      Reply
  1. bookbii

    This sounds fascinating; Peirene always seem to publish such interesting little tales, often very intense and, in some respects, mercifully short (though I think the brevity sometime makes it all the more shocking).

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      They do, all very different. They have quite an editorial eye. This one is particularly challenging, I think. My favourites of the ones I’ve read so far are White Hunger and Her Father’s Daughter.

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      It is, Naomi, although you need a strong stomach for this one. It’s an extraordinarily creative way of looking at what our brains can trick us into.

      Reply
  2. Caroline

    I have also reviewed this one recently. It made me very unsettled, and the parallel with Grimm tales is a good one. Unsettling is good work for fiction.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      It is, isn’t it. I like the way that Peirene have reinvigorated the idea of the fairy tale. Far from the saccharine-sweet stories that Disney serve up, they often served to scare children into good behaviour – take Struwwelpeter, for instance. Terrifying!

      Reply
  3. Tony

    Still waiting for my copy (it’s taking a while…). Austrian fiction has a reputation for being dark, so this doesn’t surprise me 😉

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I think we’ve forgotten that fairy tales can be very dark indeed. This is a smart reminder from Peirene and Stift! I hope it turns up soon.

      Reply
  4. Mary Mayfield

    I read/reviewed this last month – and feel there’s a definite Hansel, Gretel, and the wicked old witch tempting them in feel to it! I’d been struggling to name the other recent novel it reminded me of though, but now I’ve remembered (!) – Alison Moore’s Death and the Seaside, another tale of one woman setting out to manipulate another. HAs anyone else read both and spotted similarities?

    Reply
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