Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022, The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini is an immersive and harrowing story written in Trinidadian Creole. It’s not an easy read, for it’s a story filled with disturbing (very disturbing) graphic details. Generational trauma, incest, physical and sexual abuse of women and children, colourism, and violent death are the themes repeated often all throughout. But there’s also hope, friendship, and beauty in the story that makes this an unforgettable read.
If you have faced abuse or trauma, I would suggest you pick up this book with caution.
Alethea Lopez, the narrator, is a mixed-race woman living and working in Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital city. She is the manager of a boutique store and lives with Leo, her common-law partner. To the world, she is a feisty and independent woman. But only she knows the bruises she hides under her long-sleeved shirts. Despite being in an abusive relationship for over 5 years, she refuses to leave her partner, constantly hoping that things would get better with time. After a barrage of many lovers, she sees stability in this relationship, ignoring the control, abuse, and trauma.
Even when her friends, adopted brother, and a helpful police officer offer her a way out, she remains indecisive because her upbringing has left her shattered, and with a low sense of self-esteem. Her reluctance to accept the truth of her relationship and denial of the abuse stem from decades of trauma. And one fine day, fate becomes the decision-maker. Dark secrets from the past are revealed that force her to rethink her life.
The entire novel is focussed on Alethea, an independent and sensible woman, with a distinct voice and character. All the while, I was rooting for her to see things as they were. My heart ached at the abuse she was suffering, but she was such a powerful character that not even once did I pity her.
Allen-Agostini’s writing is raw and powerful and brings Alethea’s character to life. While the present is written in first-person narration, the past is in a neutral third-person narration and helps the reader understand Alethea’s horrendous past life and its influence on her present. The author has incorporated the disturbing elements in the story skilfully. These events, though shocking, are extremely vital to readers in understanding Alethea and the choices she makes in a non-judgemental fashion.
There are certain unnecessary details that are repeated, and I felt they added little value to the story.
It took me a while to get used to the Trinidadian Creole, but once I got the hang of it, I was deeply engrossed in the novel. The vernacular touch brings both the setting and the character to life. I think this novel wouldn’t have been this immersive if it was in plain, old English.
The Bread the Devil Knead is a moving story of issues rarely talked about openly. I loved the beautiful and hopeful tone at which Alethea’s story ends (or begins, depending on the way one looks at it!)