The Bread the Devil Knead
By Lisa Allen-Agostini
Alethea Lopez is about to turn 40. Fashionable, feisty and fiercely independent, she manages a boutique in Port of Spain, but behind closed doors she’s covering up bruises from her abusive partner and seeking solace in an affair with her boss. When she witnesses a woman murdered by a jealous lover, the reality of her own future comes a little too close to home.
Bringing us her truth in an arresting, unsparing Trinidadian voice, Alethea unravels memories repressed since childhood and begins to understand the person she has become. Her next step is to decide the woman she wants to be.Tweet
“But you ever find yourself down in a canal? It hard to climb out by yourself.”
From the moment you start reading this book, you fall in love with the rhythm of the writing – a simple but truly human woman’s observations and experiences written in Trinidadian Creole that place you right there within the mind of our protagonist, Alethea. Instantly, we learn that Alethea knows violence and pain. As we follow her story, her view of the world, and her place within it, is largely informed by the abuse she suffered at every stage of her life and the heart-breaking absence of safety, security, or love.
The Bread the Devil Knead tackles many vital topics that are often dismissed, misunderstood, or still considered “taboo”. The author weaves themes such as post-colonial legacies, colourism, domestic violence, and sexism into the plot in such a nuanced and natural way that it does not feel like these are ‘themes’ at all. Instead, they are facts of life that find their way into the story because this story, really, is a mirror to society.
The hardest part of this reflection, unsurprisingly, is the devastating depiction of child sexual abuse, which defined Alethea’s childhood and informed her life for decades to come. Whilst the instinct of many readers, and society more broadly, is often to look away, or to skim past the unpalatable truth, the reality is that it is that very instinct which creates the environment within which such abuse can be perpetuated with impunity. That is why stories like these are incredibly important to bring such issues into the light and into mainstream discourse. Not only does it give voices to survivors, but it increases awareness of the sheer prevalence of child sexual abuse and the urgent need to do more to combat it.
The plot is gripping from the outset, and Allen-Agostini perfectly draws the reader into the ever-present tension of trying to anticipate how Alethea’s story will end. There is a constant foreboding lingering over her interactions with Leo and his influence over her relationships with others, even when he is not there, epitomises the fraught tightrope that many must walk on a daily basis in abusive relationships.
It is perhaps due to this ominous atmosphere and what seems to be a steady approach to an inevitable conclusion that the ending feels surprising. It initially seems that there had been a change in course that seeks to provide a ‘happy’ ending rather than a realistic one. However, once the dust settles, it becomes clear that the story’s conclusion is like many turning points in Alethea’s journey. It is not the result of any revelation, escape or rebellion on Alethea’s part but due simply, and beautifully mundanely, to chance.
Overall, this book is an incredible read, and one that grabs you by the heartstrings each time you pick it back up. A book that captures a child’s stubborn ability to find joy and their immutable instinct to love, the power of human connection and the beauty of female friendship, which shines through the heartbreak to render this story defiantly hopeful and one of the best books I have read.
When I read the blurb on the back cover of this book, I was immediately intrigued – the main character, Alethea is feisty and independent, yet remains in an abusive relationship. Although there are a million reasons why women stay with men who hurt them, often there is a long history of abuse and neglect that goes back to childhood and that is very much the case here. Alethea’s story is deeply sad, and yet the book is also fantastically funny and uplifting, which is not really a surprise considering the author also performs stand-up comedy in addition to writing.
Lisa Allen-Agostini has created a tale that is full of violence and pain, but also light and hopeful – the relationships feel fully formed and familiar, and the setting of Trinidad makes the story pulse with excitement and heat. The use of Trinidadian Creole throughout the book was brilliant as it really situates the story in a specific place and made the characters feel authentic. We had the honour of hearing the author read an excerpt from the book (a carnival scene that has really made me want to experience a Trinidadian carnival one day) and in her voice, with the Trinidadian accent, it made the scene come alive!
I really want to avoid spoilers in this review, but I will warn readers that this is not an easy read – on the one hand, I could not put it down, wanting to start the next chapter as soon as I finished the last and on the other, I found the portrayal of violence and abuse in it really tough to get through, making it a really harrowing read. Pacing yourself is essential here, but don’t let that discourage you as the author’s ability to balance pain and humour is truly impressive and makes this an outstanding read.
This is an incredibly written book, not least because of the sharp humour and wit of the main character. There is an interesting tension to reading the story of Alethea, a woman who is at times so assertive – refusing to clean the crusty kitchen, elbowing her way through crowds to get on a bus, hooking up with her boss – also suffering the constant fear of domestic violence and seeming unable to break herself out of a bad situation. In this way, Lisa Allen-Agostini has achieved a realistic and truthful portrayal of the complexities of love in an abusive relationship. Alethea is anything but one-dimensional: she is aware of how her lover makes her hate herself, and yet she frustrates both her friends and the reader by staying with Leo – even accepting his marriage proposal.
The story takes increasingly darker turns: as we learn about Alethea’s history of intergenerational abuse and incest, the scale of trauma just seems to get worse and worse for her. It became hard to keep reading some particularly gut-wrenching scenes, but I felt the importance of witnessing and hearing them, even if fictional. We are by Alethea’s side as she realises and processes these literally sickening facts, and there is nothing we can do but keep reading and wishing for her happy ending. Thankfully, her story is one of spiritual deliverance: the relationship finally ends through a series of unexpected events, reunions, and opportunities that converge to allow her freedom at last.
Finally, I loved the fact that the book is written in Trinidadian Creole, which made the reading experience so immersive and rooted in place and culture. Alethea’s voice comes through as authentic. I enjoyed looking up various words and phrases and their history, and now wish I had the audiobook to fully understand how Allen-Agostini’s prose was meant to be heard. The descriptions of the landscape, the sun, the heat, the smell of roti, and the crowds dancing to soca at a fete carried me overseas, as all good fiction should.
This novel is beautifully written. The writing style, the protagonist’s voice, and the characters are so well done and thoughtful. I could hear the words as I read them, the cadence of the speech drawing me into the scenes and into the characters. From the first page, my attention was captivated. I felt I was a part of the setting, immersed in the scenes. I carried this book with me so that in every spare moment, I could read.
From the first lines, Alethea’s voice is strong. Throughout the novel, her present-day abuse is revealed along with her tragic past. She is a survivor – of child abuse, rape, and domestic abuse. She is fighting for happiness in her own way – fighting to find moments for herself. Her relationship with Bobby, her job, friendships and mending her relationship with Colin – these are within her control. Given her lack of control and independence from a young age, it’s clear that she needs (and deserves) to choose things for herself. She has suffered more than anyone should and she’s still there. Day after day. Living.
It’s clear that sex is complicated. Her feelings and motivation around sex swing widely between extremes. Her violent ongoing rape for over a decade combined with the physical, verbal, and emotional abuse from her mother was (understandably) traumatic and she never received the help she needed to work through those experiences and the impact it had on her. She fell into a cycle abuse and rape/sexual assault in most of her relationships.
Her reconnection with Colin was one of my favourite parts of this novel. To see their relationship with a past and present view was so key to understanding the deeper dynamics and context for their relationship. Despite their turbulent history and how they came to be, he is supportive of her and loves her like a sister/mother. In the end, he becomes her rock, her carer. Well, as much as she’ll allow. Someone who she can turn to and lean on for support in her vulnerability and pain. Someone who truly wants the best for her and can bring her to a place where she can try and heal.
While some may not like the ending, it resonated with me personally. Alethea was able to rest peacefully. She had someone caring for her, with no expectations. She swam, without support. And she wrote. She acknowledged her past, her trauma, and her pain, but also her joy and her gratitude. She wrote and wrote and then sacrificed it to the sea. And as I pictured her giving her story in that way, speaking truth to her experiences for the first time, I was speechless. She took back her life and it was beautiful.
Alethea’s story is not an easy one to read. Filled with abuse, incest, rape, and more, it should perhaps have a trigger warning because at times it was difficult to stomach. But it is worth reading and immersing yourself in because for some, it is their truth reflected on the page and we owe it to them to see them and hear their stories. Still, Alethea’s story transcends this. Her abuse is part of her journey but that doesn’t mean it’s all pain. The joyful moments are almost that much sweeter because of it. She has beautiful friendships, a loving brother, and most of all, she’s finding herself. Full of heartbreak and hope, this novel is beautiful and well worth the read.
After a long hiatus from reading, The Bread the Devil Knead threw me right back in and reminded me how a fantastically written book can make you feel.
Now, this certainly wasn’t an easy read; the realities of the protagonist, Alethea, living in Trinidad and Tobago dealing with abuse from her partner Leo and childhood trauma is harrowing. Themes of physical and mental abuse, incest, colourism, and death surround her story, alongside having an affair with her boss it is clear she is keeping busy and “dealing” with her situation to the best of her abilities.
There are some disturbing scenes in the book that are described in such a matter-of-fact way that I found myself taking a minute to process. Although I knew there would be some triggering content, I found myself shocked with how her story continued to unfold. However, I feel like these scenes were essential in allowing the reader to begin to understand how she portrays herself to the world and her attitude towards men and sex.
Alethea’s voice is strong and distinct from the outset; she’s passionate, no nonsense and independent. One of my favourite storylines was seeing how she reconnects with both Colin and her old school friend Jankie, and how her friendship develops with her colleague Tamika. These are necessary surprises she wasn’t expecting; she starts to open up, let people into her life and realise she can be happy and importantly, that she deserves it.
Lisa Allen-Agonisti writes the story in Trinidadian Creole which had me immersed in the story, the characters and island life. I wanted to know everything about Alethea’s current life, past and future. The linking of the characters and the transitions between past and present are brought together so seamlessly to create a well fleshed out and satisfying read.
Although Alethea’s story is one of trauma, it is also one of friendship, hope and new beginnings.
5/5 stars from me!
From the start, Lisa Allen-Agostini’s wonderful writing and beautiful use of Creole instantly transports you to Trinidad, where we follow the story of Alethea as she comes to deal with her past and present traumas.
This book doesn’t shy away from addressing a number of complicated issues including colourism, domestic violence, child abuse, religion, sex and family. Reading about the events that lead Alethea to be in, and stay in, her difficult and often awful, circumstances can be really harrowing at times. Yet, through spectacular storytelling, Allen-Agostini carries us through this interesting and often humorous story.
With such an interesting and complicated character in Alethea, you can’t help but to root for her along her journey of discovering why her life turned out the way it has. I particularly enjoyed reading about her finding and connecting with her long-lost brother, Colin. Their relationship is not easy and has a complicated history, but their rekindling is so meaningful and joyful once they are able to reconnect. Her relationship with him, and with old and new friends, shows not only the importance of support in abusive relationships, but how much strength it takes from the individual victims, regardless of these support systems.
The rollercoaster of Alethea’s life shows us what it means to be a resilient survivor. It was an insightful and important representation of abusive relationships and the complicated factors that can lead to them and make it difficult to leave.
I was glued to this book, desperate to know if and how her life would become better as we follow her journey of change, showing it’s never too late. I found the ending incredibly emotionally charged and the sense of release that the reader feels once our protagonist is able to let go of the issues from her past is palpable. The author impressively discusses deeply rooted, traumatic issues in a way the balances the darkness with light humour and a colourful setting. I loved this book and couldn’t put it down!
Lisa Allen-Agostini is a marvel and well-deserving of her place on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022 shortlist, if not taking the top prize itself. What she has created in The Bread the Devil Knead is a gateway for victims to be heard, seen, and understood.
The tale of Alethea is not an easy one, it is profoundly complex, deeply moving and unabashedly real. With themes such as rape, incest, child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, misogyny, murder, colourism, racism, among many more, the book is a reflection of the world we live in, told with a frankness that is not exclusionary or accusatory, simply fact.
Allen-Agostini has said she writes Caribbean stories for Caribbean people and this book undoubtedly belongs to them. As a white reader living in London, this was an education on the wonder of Trinidad and Tobago. Alive with colour, warmth, and vibrance, island life is a stark contrast to rainy old England but the darkness that lives on Trinidad, lives here too.
As we read Alethea’s story, we unearth a history of abuse that has plagued her family for generations against the backdrop of abuse she suffers in the present day. Her fear is palpable throughout the novel and tension seeps off the page into the reader in a way only few authors can do. Allen-Agostini captures the tense terror caused by living with a volatile abusive person from the start of Alethea’s life and continues throughout. First with her mother, whose negligence and abuse informs her relationships for years to come, then with her uncle who rapes her from five years old, and then in every subsequent relationship with a man she is involved in.
Until she breaks. She opens up and confides her suffering to the incredible Tamika, her colleague. This sparks a chain of events that ultimately lead to her freedom to find peace and acceptance. However, the journey there is littered with pain and scenes so harrowing that I needed a break to compose myself more than once. Be warned, this is a tough book that lays heavy on the heart of most readers. However, it is one that shows the realities of life and with that there is humour, kinship, love, and dancing – oh the dancing! Alethea is a complicated character woven together with all the complexities of being a woman in a patriarchal, racist, classist world, and her story is one of pain, love, and hope. It is one of the best books I have read this year.