Don’t be fooled by the sugar pink cover and even handed title of this beautifully presented book from Peirene: this not a sweet read and, though part of the fairy tale series, to my mind belongs to the darker of that genre. For it’s a story about control, the many ways in which women are controlled and how we try to take that control back.
The tale starts when the narrator runs into an oddly dressed older woman outside a cake shop in Vienna. She is wearing a black woollen dress with a lace mantilla, and after gazing at the cakes in the window, suggests to the narrator that they share a Gugelhupf as it is too big for her to eat alone. The young woman narrator agrees and also agrees to visit the older woman and her friend for tea the following day. This is the start of a relationship which becomes more and more coercive: the older pair carry out thefts from museums around the city, taking the reluctant narrator along with them. It is also the trigger for her to relapse into the bulimia which she has been free of for 15 years and there are graphic and disturbing accounts of her relapse as well as of her obsessive preoccupation with food, weight and body image.
As the story progresses, a second narrative is intercalated in italics into the main text. This is a sort of personal account/diary of the maid/housekeeper to Empress Sissi, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, a beauty and sort of Princess Diana figure in Austria at the time. The maid adores her mistress and we learn of Sissi’s many talents- her vivacity, charm, fearlessness as a horse woman, but also what she had to endure to maintain her beauty- the daily lacing into corsets, the interminable hours spent caring for her gorgeous floor length chestnut hair, the ways in which as a public figure, she was controlled. And as we get to know more about the strange older women, parallels emerge between Sissi and the imperious Frau Hohenembs until it almost seems as if Frau Hohenembs is some kind of older reincarnation of her.
Relationships of control are not just played out between individuals and they go beyond the arena of eating and food. Unknown authorities loom into and direct the narrator’s life without her knowledge or understanding: other tenants oust her from her flat, sending her further into the arms and influence of Frau Hohenembs and when her escape attempt fails at the end it seems as if even the forces of the state are under a higher control. The unsettling atmosphere and paranoia evoked here are reminiscent of Kafka, but the exploration of body image, ideals and distortions, throughout the story reminded me too of Alice’s experiences in Wonderland.
Now despite some harrowing accounts of bulimia, the book is at times comically absurd- the highlight of this for me was the depiction of the Miss Sissi contest 2007, where the winner wins their weight in original Viennese violet pralines and has to clamber up onto the enormous scales while pralines are piled up on the other side. Scenes are described at a witty pace and I enjoyed the backdrop of Vienna- the Sissi Museum, the Ringstrasse- all contributing to the feeling of the great weightiness of the Hapsburg Empire. And the translation by Jamie Bulloch successfully renders the casual conversational vernacular of the narrator as well as the more formal yet subservient voice of Sissi’s maid. Yet I do feel the book’s publicity should have included a warning about the scenes of bulimia, which are central and disturbing:for me the book is no fairy cake topped with sugar pink icing, more like a marbled Gugelhupf- vanilla sponge with dark whorls of chocolate within.