By Ben H.
“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body”
Vesta, the amazingly unstable 72-year-old narrator of Death in Her Hands, is my favorite of all of Ottessa Moshfegh’s growing roster of eccentric narrators. The main conceit of Death in Her Hands is that Vesta must solve a murder mystery. Before we know anything else about Vesta, we learn that she found a note in the woods (quoted above) and believes that she needs to solve the mystery (there is no body).
Based solely on that note, Vesta envisions a detailed backstory for Magda and the murderer. She imagines one plausible idea after another and adds details until she’s created a truth that is incredibly real to her. A wild journey, Death in Her Hands occurs mostly inside Vesta’s head. Moshfegh immerses the reader so far into Vesta’s isolated, almost solipsistic, world that it’s jarring when Vesta interacts with anyone other than her dog Charlie. She must interact with others because her investigation takes her all around her small Northeastern town. She visits the public library, picks up a hitchhiker, visits odd neighbors, runs from wild animals, and finds clues. As she finds clues about the murder, she drops clues about her own mysterious past.
The book is a murder mystery, and Moshfegh plays with that genre and those tropes, but it is also a psychological drama. Moshfegh is an accomplished writer who gives the reader enough information to know that Vesta is not trustworthy, but not enough information to completely dismiss the murder as a figment of her imagination. At times Death in Her Hands reads more like Woolf’s The Waves or Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Vesta’s thoughts carry us like waves; and her investigation doesn’t always make sense, but it always almost makes sense.
It’s easy to believe Vesta. She’s likable and very persuasive.
You almost believe that she’s solved the mystery!
…Then you realize that you aren’t sure that there ever was a note.
The book explores mental health, aging, abusive relationships, and isolation. Those don’t sound like cheery topics, but Vesta is a funny narrator, and she makes it an enjoyable ride: “My God, he could be crouched behind the kitchen door, and there you’d be, standing in your socked feet and bathrobe, agog at the knife glinting in the rack. Had you used it to chop onions? Had you forgotten that you’d wandered down for a midnight snack, left the knife out, et cetera? Were you still dreaming? Was I?”
Moshfegh is a master of cultivating a dreamlike quality (she nailed it in McGlue as well). When everything seems off, it’s hard to know if anything is real. If you like dark, brilliant, insightful, inventive writing, I think you’d enjoy Death in Her Hands.
P.S. This is ostensibly a review of Death in Her Hands, but it’s really a recommendation to go read ANY Ottessa Moshfegh (she’s incredible). If you’re looking to have a weird weekend, pick up a bunch of Moshfegh from your local library and get lost in her wild world. Also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook via Libby/OverDrive.
Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).