'Death in Her Hands' by Ottessa Moshfegh

'Perhaps there is a way, I thought, of figuring everything out from the safety of my own home.'—Review #164

Let me ask you something. If you were walking in the woods with your dog, and you found a note on the ground that mentioned a possible murder, would you take it home and then PUT IT IN YOUR MOUTH while wiping off your dog’s muddy paws? A MURDER letter. From the ground. In your MOUTH? When the main character of Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel used her mouth as a third hand to hold a piece of paper touched by a murderer, I had to pause and catch my breath, because I was like:

Am I wrong? I understand Moshfegh’s writing can be dark and weird, but I can’t imagine anyone seriously doing this even if they’re a fictional character. But I’m getting off track. Let me back up. If you’ve been a subscriber for a long time, or if you read my recent newsletter on Rachel Cusk’s ‘Second Place,’ you may remember I am a big fan of Moshfegh’s work. Since Books on GIF launched five years ago, I’ve reviewed all her books:

‘Eileen’ is one of my favorite books, and I’ve recommended it to just about everyone. I put ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ in last year’s quarantine reads roundup. So when I bought a copy of ‘Death in Her Hands’1 after it came out in paperback last month, my expectations were sky high.

Here’s the cover:

I rarely gripe about book covers, but this design doesn’t work for me. The face looming over the small figure is too on the nose, and the colors are garish.

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The story follows Vesta Gul, an elderly widow living with her dog, Charlie, in a former Girl Scout camp. One morning on a hike through the woods, she finds the aforementioned note that appears to indicate someone named Magda has been murdered. Vesta tries to uncover what happened to Magda, but she goes about it oddly. First, she doesn’t do the obvious things like alerting the authorities or her neighbors down the road. Instead, she heads to the local library and:

She literally uses Ask Jeeves. Remember that? Anyway, the search yields a questionnaire meant for developing a character in a murder-mystery story. Vesta fills it in to craft a backstory for Magda, including making her an immigrant from Belarus who lived in the basement of someone else she conjured up. While this is happening, we learn that Vesta also is grappling with unprocessed grief and rage over the death of her husband who succumbed to cancer after years of apparent philandering and inflicting emotional abuse. Vesta becomes obsessed with crafting Magda’s story, and people she encounters become unwitting participants in fleshing it out. Eventually Vesta starts to lose her grip on reality. Things go missing. Did she misplace them? Other things start appearing. Where did they come from? Has someone been in her house? Where did the dog go? Did an evil entity named Ghod seal Magda’s fate?

I’ve puzzled over what Moshfegh might have been going for with Vesta’s story. First, I thought it was a murder-mystery send-up where she was continuing to explore narcissism, as we saw in ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation,’ by showing what could happen if someone who’s completely self-centered and lacking in empathy was tasked with solving a crime. Then I thought maybe it was about the nuances of grief. Or maybe loneliness? Dementia? Is it a spin on ‘Fight Club’ where Magda is Vesta’s Tyler Durden? It even crossed my mind that this book might be about someone who has an undiagnosed case of rabies. (It isn’t so farfetched when you know how the book ends, which I won’t divulge here.) I’m grasping at straws, because, I gotta be honest with you, ‘Death in Her Hands’ didn’t work for me. It is frustratingly muddled and confusing, and Moshfegh’s writing doesn’t have the same energy as her previous books. I hate to say it, but several times I was like:

‘Death in Her Hands’ made me think of Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,’ which also has an elderly woman living alone in the woods amid a murder mystery. Each author nods to William Blake in their books, and Moshfegh quotes one of Blake’s poems that mentions the ‘bones of the dead.’ Was this an homage? A knowing wink? I don’t know. But I do know that I liked Tokarczuk’s book better than this one. If you’re a Moshfegh completist like me, I expect you’ll read this book anyway. But if you’re looking to read her for the first time, skip this and go with ‘Eileen.’

How it begins:

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

But there was no body. No bloodstain. No tangle of hair caught on the course fallen branches, no red wool scarf damp with morning dew festooned across the bushes. There was just the note on the ground, rustling at my feet in the soft May wind. I happened upon it on my dawn walk through the birch woods with my dog, Charlie.

I’d discovered the path the previous spring just after Charlie and I had moved to Levant. We’d worn it down all spring, summer, and fall, but abandoned it during winter. The slim white trees had been nearly invisible against the snow. On foggy mornings, the birches completely disappeared in the mist. Since the thaw, Charlie had been waking me up every morning at daybreak. We’d cross the dirt road and trudge up the slow rise and fall of a little hill, and weave our way back and forth through the birches. That morning, when I found the note laid flat on the path, we’d made it about a mile into the woods.

My rating:

‘Death in Her Hands’ by Ottessa Moshfegh was published by Penguin Books in 2020 and in 2021. 259 pages. $14.72 at Bookshop.org.

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I got my copy at Brazos Bookstore on a recent trip to visit friends in Houston, Texas.