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Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands begins with its narrator finding a mysterious note in the woods, weighed down with rocks and placed on a trail frequented only by herself. “Her name was Magda,” it reads. “Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Vesta Gul—72, a widow, living in a decommissioned girl scout camp bought with the funds she got from selling the house where she lived with her late husband, Walter—can find no body or any other sign of disturbance nearby. So she pockets the note and heads home with her beloved dog, Charlie. Then she proceeds to go quietly mad.
Death in Her Hands was written after 2015’s Eileen, Moshfegh’s breakout novel, and a short story collection, Homesick for Another World, but before 2018’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Initially, the novel, as Moshfegh recently told the New York Times, served as an exercise in dispelling a period of loneliness and grief, and the author shelved it for a few years after she finished. Like Moshfegh’s two previous novels, it’s the story of woman cut off from other people, although in Vesta’s case she seems barely aware of her own culpability in this. Far from the Western state (imagine Montana, although it’s never named) where she lived most of her adult life, socked away by a lake somewhere in what appears to be small-town New England (imagine the hinterlands of Massachusetts), Vesta seizes on the slender evidence of the Magda note and spins an increasingly elaborate yarn that lives somewhere between the real and the imaginary.
The backstory Vesta devises for Magda during this “investigation” feels plausible enough. A Belarusian teenager brought to the United States on a work program, Magda remains in the town of Levant semilegally, renting a dismal basement room from a middle-aged woman named Shirley, who alternates between selfishness and maternal concern. Shirley’s son, Blake, younger than Magda and nursing a hopeless crush, wrote the note. But who killed Magda? Could it be young, handsome Leo, her boyfriend—or Henry, an older man who works at the local convenience store and who hired Magda to care for his elderly father, then blackmailed the girl into sex by threatening to hand her over to the authorities? Or could it be someone even more sinister, someone who lurks in the woods outside Vesta’s cabin, trying to discover what she knows? And where is Magda’s body?
As its Agatha Christie–style title suggests, Death in Her Hands is partly a vamp on the classic cozy whodunnit. Vesta’s chief tool of investigation is a list of tips for mystery novelists she finds while searching the web for clues. (She knows to type in www.askjeeves.com to do this, having taken a computer class at Walter’s urging, but her idea of a productive question is “Is Magda dead?”) And, bizarrely, the various details of the story that emerge seem to be confirmed by Vesta’s real-life encounters with the residents of small-town Levant, people Magda dismisses as “blue collar and dull.” Not that she does much of what anyone would call investigation. “I wasn’t the kind of woman to ask questions,” she explains, in a sentence whose double meaning becomes increasingly clear. “A good detective presumes more than she interrogates.”
All this obliges the reader to become a more astute detective than Vesta herself in order to pick out what’s actually happening or what has happened in the past or what is perhaps a dreamlike emblem of some past trauma. What does it mean that someone dug up all the seeds Vesta planted in her garden, or that she believes someone did? The German-born Walter, who first appears in Vesta’s telling as a romantic husband bringing home roses, gradually emerges as a domestic tyrant and even a predator who demanded that the radio be turned off any time programming about the Nazis came on. Vesta, who bears the name of the Roman goddess of the hearth, recalls feeling imprisoned in their enormous house, popping anti-anxiety meds while Walter, a professor of epistemology, went out into the world and berated her for her timidity. “You spend so much time playing in your mind, like a sandbox,” he scolds her. “Everything just slipping through your fingers, nothing solid to hold.”
The same could be said of any novelist, though, and if Vesta is less actively misanthropic than Eileen or the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, she is even more deeply wedded to an interior world that seems far more alive than the one her body moves through. Magda, with her chain smoking, her slippery dark hair, and her grim family history, registers more vividly than Vesta, who has the unnatural, powder-scented fragility of a flower preserved under glass. Moshfegh gives the old canard about the association between artistic genius and madness an additional twist to arrive at the notion that inventing complex stories about the intersecting lives of entirely imaginary people is itself a species of madness. In Death in Her Hands, the plots devised by novelists uncomfortably resemble the conspiracy delusions of a paranoiac. Magda’s story grows in Vesta’s mind like a fungus, penetrating every corner, sapping the vitality from her actual experience. This is creativity as mental illness, as parasite.
Vesta lacks the deliciously shameless antisocial tendencies of Eileen and of the main character of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, who prefers sleeping huge chunks of her life away to dealing with just about anyone—or, at least, Vesta lacks the courage to embrace and celebrate such tendencies. This prevents Death in Her Hands from attaining the perverse grandeur of those two novels. It feels like an interlude, a chamber piece, one of Shirley Jackson’s more claustrophobic short stories stretching its cramped, goblin limbs into novel-length. The minor, idiosyncratic key it strikes does not make it any less enjoyable, and may even make it more so. A bolder, more universal vision of how isolation can drive you nuts would, right now, cut a little too close to the bone.