Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

Lapvona is a novel about the balance of power, faith, and human connection in a rigid rural society, set in a fictional village. In Lapvona (somewhere probably medieval, possibly in eastern Europe), lives Marek and his father Jude, the shepherd; Ina, a blind midwife and wet nurse with supernatural powers of communication with nature; the lord Villiam who lives high on the hill; and Father Barnabas, who has traded religious for the power of being Villiam’s right hand man. The village is controlled by Villiam’s whims, but when Marek finds himself caught up in Villiam’s world and Lapvona faces drought, the balance of the village changes in different ways.

From the summary, this isn’t the sort of book I would usually pick up, as I’m not a fan of a medieval setting, but I was intrigued to see what Moshfegh would do, and drawn in by the stark cover. This is a complex book, feeling like a literary fable and also a tale of human darkness. It is split into seasons, with the point of view shifting between characters to give an overarching picture of Lapvona, whilst not focusing on too many characters that you get lost. I found it quite easily gripping at the start, despite the setting, and it quickly becomes dark, with characters devoid of sympathy for others and scenes I’m sure some people will find disgusting. This darkness makes it stand out, feeling like a controlled literary portrait of a feudal society and cutthroat decisions people make even when they could be nicer.

In terms of narrative, a few things happen, but it isn’t really plot driven, and I did find the ending felt a bit like ‘oh right, that happened’ rather than a climax. This maybe suits the book, though I was wondering if there was going to be a like a big thing that happened at the end to tie it up (that’s not to say that nothing happens at the end, as that isn’t the case). This is a book that I found pretty good to read, but I’m not entirely sure why, and that weirdness is quite a good place to be (though doesn’t make for the easiest review-writing).

On reflection, I like Lapvona more and more, thinking about its strange atmosphere and hints of supernatural, embracing the dark and the disgusting without trying to see if something big is going to happen to make it all make sense to me. Also, it does give me flashbacks to studying medieval literature, especially the darker ends of it. I’ve only read a couple of Moshfegh’s previous book (liked one, didn’t like the other) and I feel this one may also be divisive, but I think it did well to ensure I wasn’t bored by something I usually wouldn’t be enthralled by.