Ottessa Moshfegh
Death in Her Hands

Although the hotly anticipated Death in Her Hands is the fourth published novel of Ottessa Moshfegh’s, its writing predates her two most successful books – 2018’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which a disaffected young woman attempts, with the aid of prescription medicine, to sleep for a year; and her 2016 breakthrough, Eileen, a thriller recounted by an anxious and alcoholic protagonist. It makes sense to read Death in Her Hands in this context – the novel has a lot in common with both books, and is experimenting with many of the same formal challenges that make Moshfegh such an interesting and exciting writer.

Death in Her Hands is a murder mystery in which there is no body, and also no clear indication that any crime has actually taken place. It is narrated by the 72-year-old Vesta Gul, a “little old lady, peacefully waiting out the rest of [her] life” in an isolated cabin on the edges of a small town after the death of her husband. Vesta has little human contact – her only company is her much-loved rescue dog, Charlie – and a highly imaginative “mindspace” (this is her term). Like the eponymous heroine of Eileen and the unnamed protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Vesta is a highly unreliable narrator, and one who is recounting actions and events that occur largely within her mind. Vesta’s ruminations, though, are initiated by a chance discovery while she is on her habitual early-morning walk with Charlie, in the woods that surround her property. She stumbles upon a note, carefully pinned to the ground with stones, which reads:

Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.

Vesta pockets the note and returns to her cabin, but she is unable to stop thinking about its contents, about who Magda might be, what might have happened to her, what her relationship is to the person who wrote the note. As her speculations become ever more elaborate, they slowly start to spill into the world around her, so that it is never quite clear to the reader, or to Vesta herself, precisely what is happening in Vesta’s imagination and what is real; and Moshfegh’s control over this disorientation is always masterful.

The problem is that Vesta has a novelist’s mind: the note, she immediately thinks, sounds like “the beginning of a story tossed out as a false start” and is “a rather dark, damning way to begin a story”; the name Magda makes her imagine “a character with substance, a mysterious past”, which would not be conjured by a “Jenny or Sally or Mary or Sue”. Her imagination is something for which her late husband used to admonish her – along with being “hysterical” and weak at heart – and he accused her often of spending “so much time playing in [her] mind like a sandbox”. Later, she visits the municipal library and uses Ask Jeeves – as she had “learned to do in a computer course” before her husband’s death – to research both amateur sleuthing and “top tips for mystery writers”.

What’s interesting is the way in which Vesta uses the information she turns up here, with each writing tip in particular leading her to imagine how her situation, and the characters she has already invented for Magda and Blake (the boy who she decides had left the note), would operate within such a fictive mystery. In response to the advice to “imagine every detail”, for example, she thinks:

Was it enough to say “his beard was thick” or was I expected to explain just how thick, and of what texture, and when the last time the beard had been trimmed and with what kind of implement, and by whom? … No, such careful imagining had to be limited to crucial scenes. If the beard was trimmed in a cave by the quarry in the dark, messily, brutishly, with a switchblade, and that switchblade had slit Magda’s throat, then the beard was worth conceiving of …

Similarly, she responds to a later prompt with “mystery was an artless genre, that much was obvious”, before also qualifying that the “literary novels” she gets from the library aren’t “any more inspired”. There’s a metafictive quality to these ruminations, of course, and Moshfegh is clearly having fun with her protagonist and her readers. But Vesta’s detailed and deliberate building of her slippery fictional world also hints at the deeper tragedy of the novel – the ways in which she has been stymied and suppressed across so much of her life.

Vesta has never had a chance to use her imagination and creative flair; nor has she, it transpires, ever been known fully or “loved properly” – the way she phrases this is “Nobody had ever said, ‘You are wonderful, even your bitterness and neurotic energy are wonderful.’ ” Her husband, Walter, it slowly transpires, was controlling, philandering, even abusive, and kept her isolated from any chance of making friends. Her whole life has been lonely, tamped down – and so the one she imagines for Magda and her circle is full of passion and boldness, albeit in their darkest iterations.

In many ways, then, Death in Her Hands is a book about this kind of suppression, and the ways in which the imagination might spill out, however blackly, from beneath it. It is a dizzying book at times, especially as Vesta’s unreliability continues to deepen and spiral; just like in Moshfegh’s other novels, one of the true pleasures of the book is how completely the reader must surrender to the peculiarities of the narrator and her limited perspective. It is frequently difficult to determine exactly what in the novel is real or imagined, but this distinction, Moshfegh seems to be arguing, is not one that matters: this is a novel about an interior life, and the way in which it apprehends the world, and about the stories that we tell ourselves in order to survive.

Fiona Wright

Jonathan Cape, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2020 as "Ottessa Moshfegh, Death in Her Hands".

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Reviewer: Fiona Wright