The Bread the Devil Knead is Lisa Allen-Agostini’s third novel (she has previously published YA fiction as well as a collection of poetry) and it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022. It is both powerful and a page-turner with a gripping plot as well as an engaging, authentic and complex central character who is also the main narrator.
Alethea Lopez is 40 years old, the manager of a clothing shop in Port of Spain, Trinidad. She is stylish and sexy. Her partner Leo is a musician who was once in a popular band. Alethea is also having an affair with her boss, the owner of the shop. But beneath her confident exterior Alethea conceals some dark secrets. The superficial aura of calm she has created around herself begins to crumble when a woman is gunned down outside the shop by a jealous lover. Alethea is shaken. A curious police officer drives her home and notices the bruises on her face. We learn from the outset that Alethea’s relationship with Leo is an abusive and violent one, perhaps that is why she looks for love with her boss, although that relationship is also abusive in its own way.
The police officer’s curiosity is dangerous for Alethea; Leo reacts in a way that is designed to ensure that she will always be afraid of the consequences of revealing to anyone what goes on inside their home. And yet Leo has a powerful hold over Alethea that is more than just the constant threat of violence – she seems drawn to him, needs his desire for her, and his love, no matter how twisted and unhealthy it seems to the reader.
Alethea also has a brother, Colin, who is a preacher. They are recently reunited after years apart. Alethea narrates her story but there are also flashbacks to her childhood: she grew up in a single parent family. Her mother (also violently abusive to her) told her that she was the product of a brief affair she had with a Venezuelan, a man it is clear she will never meet. (Alethea has the additional social disadvantage of being lighter-skinned than most and of having a Hispanic surname). Colin joined their family when he was a toddler, having been brought by Alethea’s uncle to be cared for by her mother. Alethea was a few years older than Colin and clearly adored him. He was better treated by her mother than she was, but Alethea was never jealous and merely saw it as part of her role to protect him.
As the violence in adult Alethea’s life gets worse, alternative pathways for her gradually come into view. A childhood friend who went to live in America returns, having married a rich man, and wants to open a boutique with Alethea. The renewal of her relationship with Colin causes her to examine the events of her childhood anew, especially when she finds that she has inherited property from her maternal grandmother. Gradually, the complex layers of Alethea’s emotional landscape are revealed and the reader begins to understand how she came to be here.
This is a profoundly moving novel; Alethea’s narrative is candid but she never becomes sorry for herself. She is vulnerable and damaged but she also has tremendous strengths and as her self-awareness grows so does her stature.
Set in Trinidad, the novel is written primarily in the local creole. I listened to the book on audio and although the language was hard for me as an English-speaker to get into initially, my ear gradually became attuned to it and by the end I was so glad I had chosen this format because the musicality of the language added to the experience. It is also the author doing the reading and so she brings to it all her own knowledge of her character and Alethea truly comes to life.
Highly recommended, though readers should be aware that there is a significant amount of violence and the themes of domestic abuse, parental abuse and incest are explored unsparingly.