Lapvona (2022, Penguin Publishing Group) 4 stars

A fateful year in the life of a thirteen-year-old shepherd's son living in Lapvona, a …

Review of 'Lapvona' on 'Goodreads'

3 stars

‘The man was afraid of strange people. Anyone deaf or crippled or ugly, he felt, was cursed. This was the attitude of most northerners. His wife, of course, being a native, understood that lameness or strangeness was a mark of grace. If one suffered purgatory on Earth rather than after death, heaven was easier to access.’

This book is perhaps best summarized with a ‘what the fuck’. Going into it, all I understood was that it had a medieval context and an arresting cover. Perhaps there would be commentary about being an ‘other’ in medieval society, or the role of religion in daily life, or something to that effect. To be sure, there is a bit of this, but in quite a different way than expected. I had read some of the reviews—or at least, enough to expect some grotesque and disgusting scenes. Listen to the reviews: this book is not for the faint of heart, nor those who cannot stand to read about horrible acts and horrible characters. However, Moshfegh does not describe these things gratuitously; unlike The Discomfort of Evening by Rijneveld, this book did not make me feel like I needed a scalding hot shower to feel clean again. Moshfegh’s readable style made this a fairly breezy and captivating read, even if it did feel like I was involuntarily glued to a horrible crash most of the time.Society and power imbalances abound in this book, so naturally, all of the characters are either outright detestable or, at best, pitiable but still quite monstrous. The novel mostly revolves around Marek, but Moshfegh uses various perspectives, and often will abruptly switch between them. It took some getting used to the random shifts in the middle of a scene, or even between paragraphs. Everyone is self-righteous, and no one thinks of the consequences of their actions. From the synopsis, I thought Marek would be a pitiful character and a vehicle of commentary, but he really turns out to be something else. Still, Moshfegh did a great job in making some of the characters pitiful despite all of them being either outright evil or morally ambiguous. The characters do follow certain stock types: the ‘crazy’ forest witch who is an outsider, the abusive father, the irreligious priest, the demanding lord, etc. But the book still manages to make them entertaining—and witnessing their thoughts and attitudes was morbidly fascinating.There is a narrative involved, but I’d say the characters and their flaws and mishaps are more the vehicle than the sense of a single narrative. The ending felt a bit abrupt, but also fitting, in the sense that it felt like reality—similarly, some of the characters’ actions felt out of place, and certain connections too convenient. At times the narrative would step in to explain a previous off-screen event, thereby making sense of a current scene in a way that felt a little too easy or else explaining how a character should or should not know certain plot details. Sometimes, the narrative just felt like a string of very loosely connected events. And yet, it felt realistic this way—life is hardly a continuous, linear story. Every time something doesn’t go the way you have planned, you have to begin charting a different course. And so it goes here, except that most of the paths our characters face are anything but simple or rewarding. Occasionally there were a few instances that felt unrealistic or almost fantastic, and I wasn’t sure initially whether to take this novel as literary; but it does contain otherworldly elements. Moshfegh’s literary skill isn’t so much in the plot as it is in the use of language and the way she peels back layers on each character to slowly reveal their natures and use them to explore various ideas.The themes of the novel are fairly obvious: religious, power, society, isolation, approval, suffering, and authenticity. Looming over these in the background is the series of natural disasters that blights Lapvona. Of these, the religious themes are perhaos the most overt; I enjoyed Moshfegh’s commentary on the differences between people who are devoutly religious, those who are self-righteous, and religion as an institution. Religion appears in many forms in this book, and in exactly none of them is it the least bit flattering. I would be tempted to recommend this to religious readers, especially Christians, because it highlights a lot of behaviors and ideas that seem hypocritical or questionable; but they probably would dislike it, unless they are the sort to enjoy entertaining criticisms and challenging their own preconceived beliefs. The depiction of medieval society was also executed well; in particular, the relationship between Villiam, the lord of Lapvona, and the villagers in the town below, sees some interesting turns throughout the novel.This novel is not going to be for everyone, and it is not even one I would recommend to most people unless they are the type to enjoy the themes and ideas I have outlined above. Still, Moshfegh has a charming writing style that draws you in—not to mention that cover. It is an eminently readable novel, but also at times taxing to get through. Was it rewarding in the end? I’m not sure—as I alluded to earlier, the ending is a bit abrupt and not entirely satisfactory, but it somehow works. Terrible things happen; such is life. Life has no choice but to move on, with or without us. And what of the natural disasters? Maybe nature really would heal without us, because people bring nothing but misery—at least in Lapvona.