By Jasmyne Ray
For readers who are also writers, the opening of Death in Her Hands may remind them of a commonly used writing prompt. You’re on a walk through the neighborhood/park and you come across a strange piece of paper. What does it say? Ottessa Moshfegh, the novel’s author, completes the prompt for us, penning a dark and introspective story in the process.
Vesta Gul is a 72-year-old widow who has recently moved across the country to a small community surrounded by forests, making a home for herself in a cabin on what used to be a Girl Scout campground. While walking her newly adopted dog along a path in the woods, she finds a handwritten note: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”
While she initially thinks the note was planted there as a prank by a bored local teenager, she gets fixated on the name written on the note. Likening the name to one that may belong to a foreign teenager, groups of which who work small jobs in the fastfood restaurants nearby, she begins to suspect there may be some truth to the note.
Like Moshfegh’s previous novels My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen, Death in Her Hands is completely from the main character’s perspective. Yet whereas her previous works contain a dark comedic cynicism, what this novel lacks in humorous sarcasm, it makes up for in dark undertones and flashbacks to Vesta’s life while married to her scientist husband.
She approaches the investigation with shocking seriousness, considering the fact that she initially thought it was a prank. Of course, as the reader, we see her dedicated to “solving” Magda’s murder for what it really is: feeling that she finally has a purpose. Short vignettes describe her lonely and dull life with her husband: his infidelity, shameless attraction to young female students, and ways he belittled her character and feelings.
She paints a picture of Madga as being a helpless girl subject to abuse at the hands of various “suspects” that live in her small town. Having never bothered to pay attention to them, or anyone else in town, she imagines different scenarios of Magda around these people so vividly that you almost forget that she’s making them up herself. Vesta gradually proves herself to be an unreliable narrator, but she is the only one who knows about the note in the forest, thus the only perspective we have. While Vesta implores that if no one else knows about Magda, it’s up to her to help her; we as the readers understand that her desire to help the young girl in her head is because she wished someone had done the same for her.
The unreliable narrator is a device that Moshfegh has used before. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the narrator explains that the reason she wants to “hibernate” for a year is that she finds everything so hard to deal with. Yet, throughout the novel, when talking about her parents dying one after the other in such a short span of time, she seems so nonchalant. A classic example of an unreliable narrator in a similar context is Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, whose angsty and sarcastic outlook attempts to make the reader believe the world of “phonies” is against him.
At 272 pages, Death in Her Hands is a solid, engrossing read that holds your attention until the very end. With Vesta making things up as she goes, the mystery around Madga’s life and “death” twist, turn, and overlap with people in the small town; there’s no way to guess how it ends without reaching the last page.