NAMED A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2022 BY The Millions, Harper's Bazaar, New York Magazine, LitHub, AV Club, and more
In a village in a medieval fiefdom buffeted by natural disasters, a motherless shepherd boy finds himself the unlikely pivot of a power struggle that puts all manner of faith to a savage test, in a spellbinding novel that represents Ottessa Moshfegh’s most exciting leap yet
Little Marek, the abused and delusional son of the village shepherd, never knew his mother; his father told him she died in childbirth. One of life’s few consolations for Marek is his enduring bond with the blind village midwife, Ina, who suckled him when he was a baby, as she did so many of the village’s children. Ina’s gifts extend beyond childcare: she possesses a unique ability to communicate with the natural world. Her gift often brings her the transmission of sacred knowledge on levels far beyond those available to other villagers, however religious they might be. For some people, Ina’s home in the woods outside of the village is a place to fear and to avoid, a godless place.
Among their number is Father Barnabas, the town priest and lackey for the depraved lord and governor, Villiam, whose hilltop manor contains a secret embarrassment of riches. The people’s desperate need to believe that there are powers that be who have their best interests at heart is put to a cruel test by Villiam and the priest, especially in this year of record drought and famine. But when fate brings Marek into violent proximity to the lord’s family, new and occult forces upset the old order. By year’s end, the veil between blindness and sight, life and death, the natural world and the spirit world, will prove to be very thin indeed.
Moshfegh's deliriously quirky medieval tale (after Death in Her Hands) revolves around a disabled shepherd boy's test of faith. Marek, 13, is abused by his father and raised by Ina, a midwife and witch who once nursed him as an infant. Still, Marek possesses a childlike faith in God. He'll need it. All is not well in the fiefdom of Lapvona: a plague ravages the people, a drought sours the earth, starvation spreads, and high atop a hill overlooking the village sits greedy Lord Villiam, a man who "believe that his appetite nothing but a physical symptom of his greatness" and consequently hoards all the food. Down below, Ina trades villagers psychedelic mushrooms for bread and eggs, and the mushrooms give people alternately visions of heaven and hell, either a respite from or an enhancement of the daily nightmare wrought on them by Villiam. Moshfegh's picture of medieval cruelty includes unsparing accounts of torture, rape, cannibalism, and witchcraft, and as Marek grapples with the pervasive brutality and whether remaining pure of heart is worth the trouble or is even possible the narrative tosses readers through a series of dizzying reversals. Throughout, Moshfegh brings her trademark fascination with the grotesque to depictions of the pandemic, inequality, and governmental corruption, making them feel both uncanny and all too familiar. It's a triumph. Agent: Bill Clegg, Clegg Agency.