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Whether it’s the pandemic, war, climate change, inflation or political discord, there’s no shortage of anxiety-producing phenomena in contemporary life. It’s understandable, therefore, that readers might be looking for a fictional world that’s even more unsettling than our own. If that’s the case, then Ottessa Moshfegh’s dark, claustrophobic new novel may bring them to exactly that place. How they’ll feel about spending considerable time there may be a different question.

Beginning one spring, and over the course of the ensuing year, LAPVONA follows the lives of an ensemble cast of characters, most of them impoverished inhabitants of the titular village in an unnamed country in medieval Europe. At the heart of the story is Marek, a deformed 13-year-old boy who “lives for hardship.” Jude, his father, obliges by subjecting him to regular beatings, “like a stray dog,” seemingly more fond of the lambs he herds --- his “babes” --- than he is of his son. Jude has told Marek that the boy’s mother, Agata, died in childbirth, but his deception about the circumstances surrounding that event becomes clear early in the novel, and she returns to play a key role in the story.

"Moshfegh has drawn a precise and vivid portrait of the hardships of existence on the knife-edge of survival in a medieval village, in which life assuredly is nasty, brutish and short."

Presiding over this benighted population is Villiam, the corrupt and self-absorbed lord of the manor, who remains a spectral presence to most of the villagers. When his subjects threaten to get out of hand, he routinely dispatches a troop of bandits to slaughter a few innocents, as he does on Easter in the novel’s opening pages. During a catastrophic drought, when the populace eventually turns to cannibalism that Moshfegh describes in gruesome detail, he hoards a supply of water that might help at least some of them survive. In a handful of scenes, Moshfegh reveals the lord’s cruelty and his undeniably perverted personality. “Terror and grief were good for morale,” Villiam believed. Marek, for one, is under no illusions about Villiam’s depravity, wishing he too could be “dumb and numb to other people’s sorrow.”

As might be expected in a novel set in this time, questions of faith are central to the story, but organized religion is represented in the person of Villiam’s clerical sidekick, Father Barnabas, who “loved not the Christ but himself and the thrill of keeping people in line” and “simply translated Villiam’s rule into language that sounded vaguely religious.” This cynical sycophant “had no real knowledge of the Bible --- he spoke no Latin, read only a little, understood nothing --- but walked around with the Good Book anyway to give the impression that he knew it all, and at each household he opened it to random pages and spoke in a gibberish that made the villagers cross their hearts and bow their heads.” In exchange for lodging and ample food at the table he shares with Villiam, his principal function is to use the confessional to serve as an informer and report “any sagging dispositions or laziness to the man above,” so that his master can mete out appropriate retribution.

About the closest Moshfegh comes to creating a sympathetic character is Ina, an elderly woman who as a young girl survived a plague that killed the other members of her family but in the process lost her eyesight. After she flees the convent where she is sent following her recovery, she lives alone in a cave for decades before emerging to become the village wet nurse and practitioner of herbal medicine. But even she has a dark side, as it’s revealed that she once used her powers in an unsuccessful attempt to abort the pregnancy that produced Marek.

Moshfegh has drawn a precise and vivid portrait of the hardships of existence on the knife-edge of survival in a medieval village, in which life assuredly is nasty, brutish and short. She is also an able storyteller who devises efficient plot complications that land Marek a spot in Villiam’s manor, bring Ina back from the brink of death, and return Agata to Lapvona, eventually giving rise to the impending birth of a child whose arrival some want to believe may represent the return of the Christ Child.

But these strengths are largely eclipsed by the unremitting bleakness of this story. Most readers will reach its end with a feeling of relief, more so than any sense of satisfaction that the rewards and punishments Moshfegh has devised for her characters have been meted out justly.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on June 24, 2022

by Ottessa Moshfegh