It all starts with a sentence. “Her name was Magda.” Then three more. “Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But the ground is clear. No body, no blood. No signs of a struggle. Just the conspicuous note, printed in blue ballpoint pen on notebook paper, pinned to the forest floor with small black rocks. Vesta Gul, protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel Death in Her Hands, is perplexed. Perhaps this is some sort of joke, she thinks. Maybe someone is playing a game. But the more she dwells on it, the harder it becomes to let it go. The idea of Magda, the mystery of her body and apparent death, and the life that preceded it, takes root in Vesta’s mind; until she decides she has to know the truth. But despite the seventy-two year old Vesta, her dog Charlie, her lake cabin home and rural setting, Miss Marple this isn’t. Instead, Vesta becomes both writer and reader to the mystery of her own creation. Moshfegh is clearly playing with our perceptions of the novel itself, but despite that interesting premise, too often it gets lost in Vesta’s monologues, and the novel’s slow pace only furthers that distance.
Following the death of her husband, a German epistemologist named Walter, Vesta Gul decides to attempt something of a fresh start for herself. She sells her belongings, gets a dog, and moves into a cabin that’s part of a former girl scouts camp, on a lake in the fictional town of Levant. There she begins a new pastoral existence, in contrast to the rigid and logic ruled life she had with Walter, and falls into a new rhythm. She walks her dog Charlie through the woods, reads books from the library, and buys groceries once a week at the local store. That is, until the mysterious note upends the quiet peace she’s worked to build. Vesta convinces herself that Magda is real, and sets out to discover her fate, for Magda’s sake as much as hers.
She takes the note, and begins researching at the local library. Her attempts to “Ask Jeeves” for hints doesn’t bring her any closer to gaining an understanding, but she stumbles onto a site offering tips for mystery writers. Since Vesta has convinced herself that she is now smack-dab in the middle of a mystery, she clicks through, hoping to use the tips to reconstruct the case, a tactic reminiscent to her as she remembers back to watching murder mystery shows on television with her late husband. The website suggests fleshing out your characters, so that’s just what she does; Vesta building a character sheet for Magda that would be familiar to any aspiring writer or workshop attendee.
Moshfegh herself is no stranger to writer’s tricks or meta-narrative, and it’s not difficult to imagine her stumbling across a similar site to the one she offers to Vesta. Throughout the course of the novel, Moshfegh toes the line between text and subtext, with Vesta imagining the narrative before it presents itself in front of her just as she envisioned. She imagines Magda as a young Belorussian girl, in America on the run from her alcoholic father back home. The note-writer becomes Blake, a young boy infatuated with Magda. She imagines other characters: Blake’s mom, Shirley, who must have housed Magda; a lover, Henry; a monster, Ghod. One by one, these characters manifest themselves into Vesta’s story and then into her life, deepening the delusion.
The vast majority of the novel comes through Vesta’s internal monologues. She spends time imagining the characters in her mystery, and how they connect together, as well as drawing connections or triggering memories from her long life. These start benign enough, imagining what Walter might have told her like a sort of guiding voice, suggesting more analytical solutions in contrast to Vesta’s imagination. Other times she remembers his teasing. But over time, these become more sinister, as Vesta recalls Walter’s neglect and infidelity, and laments her life choices. Vesta wants to go back, to make a change, as taking up residence in the girl scout camp suggests, but doesn’t allow herself to truly start over. Instead, she seems to be filling time towards an inevitable end.
But while Vesta’s digressions are at times moving, and Moshfegh’s meta-commentary on the writer and reader is interesting, the novel struggles to move beyond that. It’s clear early on that no answers will be found, but Moshfegh seems to lean too heavily on Vesta’s internal narration to keep the pages turning, and there’s little in the way of action to back it up. The result is muddled; tentative. Moshfegh certainly hasn’t written a murder mystery, but the book doesn’t commit fully into discussing death, or the state of the novel. And yet, there’s something seductive here. There’s interesting ideas here on death, the novel itself, redemption, and more in Death in Her Hands, all of which are covered at times with nuance, and at times with obfuscating heavy-handedness. The ending re-frames a lot of the novel, and offers almost a new reading for the events preceding. There are gems in here; which make it all the more disappointing that the book lacks the precision and refinement to truly pull it off.
Death in Her Hands
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Published June 23rd, 2020
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.