I am at that stage in my reading life where I purchase Peirene books without even reading their blurbs, almost certain as I am that I will enjoy them, and find them striking and thought-provoking. I have only been disappointed with one of their titles to date, and they firmly remain one of my favourite publishing houses. When I spotted a deal on the Kindle store for Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake then, I jumped at the chance of buying it, and read it the very next day. Given its title too, it seems fitting that I am scheduling this post on my birthday!
The Empress and the Cake has been translated from its original German by Jamie Bulloch, and is set in Vienna. Its Austrian author has won many awards for her writing. The novella is part of Peirene’s Fairy Tale: End of Innocence series. Of it, Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, writes: ‘On the surface this is a clever thriller-cum-horror story of three women and their descent into addiction, crime and madness. And at times it’s very funny. But don’t be fooled. The book also offers an exploration of the way the mind creates its own realities and – quite often – deludes us into believing that we control what is actually controlling us.’
The Empress and the Cake is split into two distinct parts, and opens with our narrator standing in a cake shop, where she sees a woman acting rather strangely: ‘She had no intention, so it appeared, of buying anything; she simply seemed to enjoy gazing at the layers of light and dark chocolate, the white cream toppings and the colourful sugar decorations’. This woman, who later introduces herself as Frau Hohenembs, asks the narrator to share a splendidly named Gugelhupf with her. Without explanation, the narrator then follows Frau Hohenembs to her apartment, under the pretence of eating cake and drinking coffee: ‘And I really didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with half a Gugelhupf after stuffing myself with cake at this woman’s place. Even contemplating what might happen with my share was giving me a headache.’
A distinct contrast to Frau Hohenembs is her housekeeper, Ida: Frau Hohenembs ‘definitely fell into the category of thin, if not emaciated. [Overweight] Ida rapidly ate four pieces of cake, one after the other…’. We find, rather soon, that our narrator suffered with bulimia when she was younger, and the gluttony of eating of the cake – something which she would ordinarily avoid – brings on a relapse: ‘The grotesque face of my abnormality, which had lain dormant within me, resurfaced. It was the first time in fifteen years. I had always known that there was no safety net. But I hadn’t suspected that it would arrive so unspectacularly, that it would not be preceded by a disaster such as heartbreak or dismissal or a death.’
The present-day story is interspersed with extracts from a fairytale-like text, which allows the reader to muse somewhat upon whose story it is, and who is doing the telling of it. These sections render the whole peculiar, yet beguiling; there is almost a compulsion to keep reading. Stift has cleverly, in such a restricted space as a novella, presented an almost impossible plot to correctly guess at. The Empress and the Cake is rather unsettling, particularly toward the end, but if you like quirky and unusual books, it is one which is well worth picking up.