Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Year Release: 2022
Source: Physical Copy
Trigger warning: realities of birth, rape, sexual assault, religious trauma, graphic religious flagellation, child sexual abuse, incest (between adults), child physical abuse, death of babies, maggots, starvation, pica, vomiting, murder, cannibalism, murder, self-harm, violence against animals, ableism
The invented village of Lapvona sits at the feet of its manor, both literally and figuratively. The lord is a pig with zero self-awareness, but the story of this seemingly cursed town also centers on its inhabitants. Not a single person is a good person, the plot moves from one natural disaster to personal disaster, ping ponging between the two. The prose is crisp and clear, making the happenings uncomfortably unambiguous in their depiction.
I’ve read so many things that I can reliably comp to The VVitch, but this one definitely follows a kind of interpersonal dread that makes you beg the question of the devil’s involvement. In this work, however, the answer is clear as mud. And if you’re into the unlikability of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, it is relentless across a wider cast of characters.
This book is so fucked. Much like in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, everyone sucks here and the main characters are profoundly unlikeable. But it’s the juxtaposition of pedestrian tribulations of medieval life and interpersonal villainy that keeps me hooked here. The prose is simple in its structure and conveyance. The number of lines that I have highlighted are those that make me blink and require a reread to ensure I understood just what I got myself into. It’s an unhinged combination of beautiful sentences and “what the fuck did I just read.”
The plot tumbles from one terrible thing into another, and I could not stop reading, except to take breaks for my own processing. There isn’t much of a structure as a call and response of something happening and the seamless transition between points of view reminiscent of omniscient narration. It’s hypnotic and easily readable, really making the content of each new line shine. The book is broken up into the four seasons, and there isn’t much of a climax and cliffhanger at the end of each section as one might expect in similar stories.
The natural and occultic horror in this book worked so well. There are things that happen, but it builds to a conclusion as uncomfortable as many of the events that came before it. The use of cycles of violence in micro and macro ways also piles on the dread. Religion informs much of the characters’ beliefs, ranging from atheism to sadistic devotion. But it’s also not a clear part of the plot. There’s no one overtly suggesting the devil is at work, though one figure is obsessed with another being a witch. Seeing all these details work together with a mostly invisible path of the plot is part of the charm.
But I think much of this book’s spellbinding is that the characters are shitty in ways that aren’t strictly big plot moments. For example, when the deadly proximity thing mentioned in the cover copy happens, it’s not even the worst or weirdest thing to have happened in the book yet. Do the characters get redeemed at all? No. They’re just all like the way they’re unabashedly portrayed within this account of a year in an invented medieval town. It’s not necessarily grimdark, but it is very dour and distressingly frank.
I can’t even begin to explain what I enjoyed about this one so much, because several aspects are terrible. Not a single character is redeemable, from parents who want their kids dead, to the wet nurse who cannot stop wet nursing, to the inept, immature lord, to the priest who is his enabler. If this is the sort of thing you’re interested in for no explicable reason, please heed the content warnings.