Death in her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh

Huge thanks to the publisher, Penguin Random House, for offering a free ARC of this in exchange for an honest review.

And this is a tricky book to review: after a few plot-driven narratives, it was a sudden change of pace which was a tad disconcerting and took a little while to find my feet. But once I did, this became a hauntingly quietly powerful exploration of a very troubled mind.

Vesta Gul, is that troubled mind and our protagonist and narrator. And – oh boy! – she is a deeply unreliable one prone to obsession, paranoia, panic and mythomania. Living reclusively on the edge of a lake with her dog Charlie for company, having moved across country on her husband’s death, in an old Girl Scouts summer camp. On one day, whilst walking Charlie in the woods, she discovers a note pinned down by rocks on the path:

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

From there, Vesta’s mind leaps to assumptions and guesswork and imagination – recreating the person Magda from nothing more than the name and informed by nothing more than a passing familiarity with television crime drama and the language of Madga’s stream of consciousness is very cinematic – cliched? – in places:

Here is her dead body. Surely there was more to say. Where was Magda? Was it so hard to come up with a description of her corpse, tangled in the brush under a fallen tree, her face half sunken into the soft black dirt, her hands hog-tied behind her back, the blood from her stab wounds leaching into the ground? How hard was it to imagine a small golden locket glinting between sodden birch leaves, the chain broken and dashed through the new, tender, hairy grass?”

Oh but I love that description of the grass: “hairy”. That’s wonderfully vivid, if a little animalistic.

And why can’t life roll along the same familiar lines of cinematic cliche? It would make things much easier! Because that is how Magda expects life to work: she attempts to solve the – death? murder? case? – case of Magda with moments informed by Sherlockean attempts at deduction and amateur sleuthing, treating the case like a putative detective novel. And like all detective fiction writers, nothing really happens outside the confines of her own mind.

Or does it?

Magda’s whirling list of suspects – pushed on by character sheets printed from the internet – start to find resonances in the handful of characters in her secluded life: the neighbours, the local policeman, the disfigured store owner, a woman she bumps into in the library. Vesta is unhinged – obviously – but Moshfegh creates from her “mindspace” such a shifting sense of threat that you cannot help but share it. My grandparents suffered from dementia and I recall the horrors they had of burglars in the night, of the strange old woman in the mirror staring at them, of not recognising family or carers. Vesta’s voice felt eerily familiar.

Vesta is therefore hugely sympathetic, but difficult to like as a character: her prejudices are brought very much to centre stage and her comments about people’s appearances – she has a particularly thing about “fat” people – and her judgemental prickliness is authentic but unsettling. But the real story here, for me is Vesta’s own. Through her interior monologue, her stream of consciousness, we see snippets of her life with her husband Walter and their relationship, which shed much more light on the difficulties I had with Vesta’s characterisation. The slow revelations, the implication of toxicity in that relationship, was particularly haunting.

I would like to pay special attention to one episode that I particularly enjoyed: the episode with the neighbours on whose lawn Vesta collapses – the woman dying of cancer but hosting a murder mystery party to “celebrate me. Better now than when I’m gone.” These pages, where Vesta responds to, comments on and recoils from the neighbours brings the dark humour of the novel to the fore, but alongside that paranoid terror.

But, oh poor Charlie!

Ratings:

Overall: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Characters: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐

Language: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Date: 21st April 2020

Available: Penguin Random House

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