Penguin Pr. Jun. 2022. 320p. ISBN 9780593300268. $27. F
Moshfegh has always been keenly interested in a certain ugliness of humanity, and her latest work takes that preoccupation to its most literal ends yet. Her fourth novel (following Death in her Hands) is ostensibly a work of historical fiction, fixing itself in a small medieval fiefdom where water and religion reign; the narrative is structured according to the four seasons, all the better to communicate the relentless everyday suffering and misery on perverse exhibition therein. In truth, the work more squarely falls within the realm of fabulism, with period-specific magical realism flourishing the narrative. The author’s familiar, acidic probing of peculiar psychologies remains largely in place, but here such grotesqueries are not only interior but exterior, each character a twisted fairy-tale creation subsumed within a bleak Middle Ages realism. For Moshfegh initiates, the pivot should feel appropriately organic; for the unfamiliar, the narrative’s historical and fantastical tilts still offer plenty to chew on: the village of Lapvona is nothing if not an easy analogue for the implicit evil of class divide. But the novel’s success lies in never explicitly committing to either blunt metaphor or cheap cock-and-bull storytelling, instead allowing Moshfegh’s facility with trenchant character development to remain at the fore.
VERDICT At once immensely alien and deeply human, Moshfegh’s latest is a brutal, inventive novel about the ways that stories and the act of storytelling shape us and articulate our world.
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