The Lost Village
By Camilla Sten
This is the second part of my review of Camilla Sten’s The Lost Village. This post contains spoilers and a deeper discussion of how I read the book. Check out the previous book review post for a spoiler-free review.
Note: All of my discussions about mental health are based on my personal experiences and reading. I have absolutely no clinical authority.
An Author’s Foreword
Sten chose to begin her novel with a foreword, which I don’t normally recommend. A novel should be able to tell its own story without the author holding the reader’s hand or explaining how they prefer their work to be interpreted. In this case though, the book depicts mental health problems, on both the individual and societal level, so the foreword could be seen as a trigger warning. Sten’s personal experience with depression and her academic study of psychology informed her writing and the foreword makes it clear how she hoped it would be received. Still, I wish I had the opportunity to read this again without reading those two pages, just to compare my reactions.
The issues of mental illness, caregiving, and stigma are deeply personal to me. These issues were key elements of this novel, which immediately raised the stakes.
At one point in The Lost Village, Robert suggests that clues regarding Birgitta in 1959 suggest she was autistic (34). Tone quickly points out that trying to diagnose someone like this is problematic (which it is), but there are many clues that suggest a possible diagnosis of autism. Based on my personal knowledge (not clinical), Birgitta could indeed have been a person with nonverbal autistim. Scapegoating anyone is bad enough, but targeting Birgitta took the story to a deeper level for me.
The treatment of and assumptions made about people with mental health issues is explored further in the modern story line. Robert and Max are quick to accuse Tone of murder when she’s off her anti-psychotic medications, completely forgetting the logic that she couldn’t possibly have done it within the given time frame, with only one access point to a second-story floor, and while hobbling on a broken ankle. Later, Max gaslights Alice, angrily saying she’s selfish when she refuses his sexual advances in the middle of a crisis (274). He even throws out the time-tested manipulator’s line, “I thought it was what you wanted” (273).
With Alice, Sten shows the deep-seated self-doubt and even the belief of being unlovable which can become chronic symptoms after a crippling bout of depression. Depression doesn’t just happen once and leave a person to go on with their life as if it never occurred. In the beginning, it is very easy to suspect that Alice may be an unreliable narrator. She probably sometimes feels that she’s an unreliable narrator in her own life. I can completely believe that she never realized Max liked her romantically or that Emmy came to help because she still cared about Alice as a friend. Alice simply didn’t believe in her own self-worth.
Caregiving, Power, and Group-think
The issue of caregiving is exposed as problematic and based on a power structure. Emmy was never trained or prepared to be a caregiver for Alice’s depression, yet she did her best until she simply burned out. Emmy is cast in a negative light until Alice is able to draw connections between her own care for Tone and Emmy’s experience. Alice had to get beyond herself.
Elsa expanded her role as caregiver beyond her family to include the entire community, to the point that she takes on a superior attitude. In her teen angst, Aina bristles at this behavior from her mother, despite needing a caregiver. When Elsa finally realizes that more is at stake than her personal jealousy of the attention Father Mattias is getting, it’s far too late.
There’s a wonderfully nuanced scene when Elsa first meets Mattias that could have come straight out of a vampire story. After initial misgivings, she tells him how a dying neighbor could benefit from his help. The slow pacing and subtle, creepy body language come together as if Elsa has just invited a vampire across the threshold of Silvertjärn.
Political events in recent American history also bring a deeper level to how group-think is explored in this book. I doubt that was ever on Sten’s mind while writing it, but the echoes were definitely in my mind while reading about an entire town’s descent into acute depression and their susceptibility to the charms of any savior. The Lost Village is a good example of horror as social commentary.
The novel is also about storytelling itself. It shows how Alice’s grandmother was obsessed with piecing together the story of her hometown and missing family, how Alice tries to use documentary film making to pick up where her grandmother left off, and how Tone must come to Silvertjärn to find her own identity by piecing together her mother’s story. It’s a novel of nested storylines, drawing the reader’s attention to how the story can be told in multiple ways: letters, three personal points of view (if you count the epilogue), an introductory flashback, a crowd funding project description. Even the author’s foreword frames the storytelling. Also consider Father Mattias’s manipulation of Bible stories and hymns to exercise power and the moments when Alice consciously sets up shots for the film, building cinematic moments of storytelling.
The one thing I didn’t like about the ending was when Father Mattias tells Elsa not to worry about Aina witnessing her death. I think that was out-of-character for him and possibly the author tying up a loose end in an ungraceful way. It pulled me out of the story when tension was at a peak.
In my previous post, I referred to themes of female roles and strength. My awareness of those dynamics may be why I was more forgiving of the end than some reviewers were. I found the final reveal to be in keeping with the feminine symbolism throughout. The image of a church meeting in a hole in the ground is decidedly womb-like, so the ending is as perfect as you can get without the Mother Earth goddess herself coming up and crushing the bad guy.
For me this was a powerful reading experience. It was more than a mystery thriller.
What did you think?