THE LOST VILLAGE by Camilla Sten
translated from the Swedish by Alex Fleming
Minotaur Books, April 6, 2021
The Lost Village, originally published in Swedish as Staden in 2019, has a rather striking premise: in the 1950s, all 900 inhabitants of a remote Swedish town vanished without a trace. There were only two people left behind – a newborn baby and a woman stoned to death in the town square. In the present-day, documentary filmmaker Alice has been obsessed with this town since she was a child, as her grandmother’s entire family disappeared in the incident (her grandmother had moved away and was living in Stockholm at the time), and Alice decides to make an excursion to the town with a small filmmaking crew to uncover the truth about what happened.
And the premise is indeed the strongest thing about it – it kept me turning pages simply because the central mystery was so bizarre and fascinating. There are dual timelines, past and present, with the present-day getting more of a focus, and I thought this balance was done well. The tone was also fantastic – I wouldn’t necessarily describe this book as creepy or gothic in atmosphere, but there was this sort of gently thrumming sense of terror throughout the whole thing (not dissimilar from Midsommar which this is probably going to be compared to quite a bit).
That said, my first issue with this book cropped up within the first few pages, which is simply that the writing is quite amateurish. I’m not sure whether the clunkiness can be ascribed to the original prose or to the translation (I’m inclined to think the former – my issues weren’t typically with word choice as much as poorly written exposition), but either way, it took some getting used to.
I also found the treatment of mental health to be rather cringe-inducing. Mild spoilers: It’s pretty obvious one character’s possible ‘psychosis’ is set up to be a red herring in a rather half-baked attempt to provide a meta commentary about the stigmatization of mental illness, which… isn’t half as progressive as thriller writers seem to think it is. For one thing, try to read this exchange without rolling your eyes into the back of your head:
“I saw them in your tent,” he goes on. “In the toiletry bag, when I was borrowing your toothpaste. Abilify.” He pauses. When he goes on, his voice is heavy.
“Abilify is an antipsychotic. Right? That’s what it said on the packaging.”
And for another thing… why? We know mental illness is stigmatized. We know. This is not a particularly clever or incisive or subversive commentary on that fact. Maybe as a writer you could try to come up with a more creative way to sow seeds of doubt into a group of friends than the dramatic reveal of – gasp – Abilify…
Anyway, it’s hard to comment on the resolution without giving anything away, so I’ll stay vague. I found some parts satisfying, some annoyingly convenient, and some just raised the question how did the initial investigation overlook this?
So on the whole, I just found this frustratingly uneven in execution. I certainly did enjoy reading this more often than not, I’d just encourage you to lower your standards if it piques your interest.
Thank you to Netgalley and Minotaur Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.