Following the publication of three widely successful novels, Ottessa Moshfegh takes a different turn in her latest, “Lapvona.” Set in the titular medieval village of Lapvona, the novel depicts the bleak unfolding of a year’s worth of events and complex relationships between the residents. Along the way, several lies are uncovered, and the narrative explores the role of religion and corruption in the feudal society. Overall, “Lapvona” deftly weaves together a multifaceted view of a group of citizens and the political and moral issues they face, although the individual characters and overall plot arc ultimately fall a little flat.
The novel’s greatest strength lies in Moshfegh’s ability to spin several individual storylines that collide with each other in complex ways. As new characters are introduced throughout the story, the narration shifts towards their point of view, allowing the reader to understand their backstory and how they fit into the societal dynamic. Moshfegh manages these shifts quite well: They are appropriately spaced out, making it easy to keep track of the multitude of characters, and the novel frequently returns to the perspective of its two protagonists, a lamb herder Jude and his son Marek, which prevents the story from being unfocused.
With a large arsenal of characters and shifting perspectives, “Lapvona” is able to cover multiple seemingly independent character trajectories. Throughout the story, different subsets of the characters collide and interact with each other in various settings, and it all pays off at the climax, when a majority of the characters all encounter one another over the course of one night. The buildup of the characters’ interactions makes the climax quite satisfying — after pages spent apart, everything seems to finally come together.
However, one short side of “Lapvona” is its lack of compelling characters. The story’s frequent shifts between characters makes it difficult to feel any attachment to any specific person, and the novel does not try to make any character particularly likable either. The characters all seem to embody one trait to the extreme and stand in as archetypes. Not one undergoes any deep reflection or change — several shallowly try to do so, but each still remains in the confines of their original self.
Furthermore, the events leading up to the climax and the events following drag on a bit. The exposition in the beginning is a little too long, and in the second half, there are stretches of time where not much happens at all. The plot seems directionless at times, and along with the lack of character development, this makes the story arc fall short. In the end, it feels as if nothing useful has been learned or accomplished; even those who do learn something are unable to use their knowledge in any meaningful way.
On the other hand, “Lapvona” does a great job in its depiction of corruption and deception. It is revealed early on that the village priest Father Barnabas and the ruler Villiam are in cahoots to exploit the villagers out of greed. Their deception drives the main actions of the story, creates a bleak divide between lack and excess, and contains clear parallels to greed and corruption in the real world. Beyond this, there are several other instances of duplicity. Moshfegh cleverly illustrates these moments of deceit by giving the reader a sense of what it is like to be lied to by first placing the reader in the perspective of the one being misled and then later revealing to the reader the untruthfulness of what was said earlier.
The concept of religion is another major theme of “Lapvona.” The village’s power figures use religion to deceive the villagers, with the poor even justifying their suffering with their religious beliefs. Moshfegh also touches on growth and change in spirituality, with some of her characters undergoing drastic changes in their beliefs as their lives are turned upside down. The characters in “Lapvona” all hold different relationships towards religion, and Moshfegh’s exploration of different characters’s perspectives enables a multifaceted view of religion to be developed. For example, the narrative goes into a great deal of detail on how the servants and villagers, particularly Marek and Jude, grapple with religion. However, the story could go further in exploring how those in power, such as Villiam and Father Barnabas, square their beliefs with their actions.
Plot and character shortcomings notwithstanding, “Lapvona” is very well-written. Moshfegh uses many short, direct sentences to build up longer, descriptive, action driven sequences, giving the writing a lyrical quality and an elegant sense of rhythm. The novel touches on the supernatural by including vague descriptions of magic and witchcraft and pushes the boundaries of what is comfortable. It contains many morally abhorrent moments that are extremely hard to read, but Moshfegh manages to pull it off with her tactful style. “Lapvona” creates a deeply compelling world with relatable issues, which makes it well worth the read.