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Mia Levitin

Portrait of a paranoiac: Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh, reviewed

A cryptic message discovered in the New England woods leads to madness and breakdown for Moshfegh’s lonely, widowed protagonist

Portrait of a paranoiac: Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh, reviewed
Ottessa Moshfegh. Credit: Getty Images
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Death in Her Hands

Ottessa Moshfegh

Cape, pp. 272, £14.99

Like Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel Eileen (2015), Death in Her Hands plays with the conventions of noir. Vesta Gul, a recently widowed 72-year-old, lives in a secluded lake cabin in rural New England. Walking her dog one day in the woods, she finds a cryptic note under a rock: ‘Her name was Magda,’ it reads. ‘Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.’ With no trace of a body or other clues in sight, Vesta pockets the note. Is it a prank, she wonders? Or ‘the beginning of a story tossed out as a false start, a bad opening’?

What follows is less of a whodunnit than a portrait of paranoiac unravelling in isolation. As Vesta’s imaginings eclipse her reality, she increasingly experiences what Moshfegh has called ‘Shirley Jackson moments’ — when ‘the everyday world becomes tinted with a sheen of terror’. Inspired by a list of ‘TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS!’ found while sleuthing online,Vesta invents an elaborate backstory for Magda, including local suspects and their motives for murder. Through her self-talk, we learn more about Vesta’s past, including the relationship with her late husband, who emerges as having been abusive and unfaithful. By crafting a story for Magda, it is her own life — and death — that Vesta takes in her hands. ‘Her name was Vesta,’ she thinks as the book closes. ‘That was what I meant to write all along — my story, my last lines.’

In sending up the detective genre, Moshfegh is true to her mischievous persona. The ‘top tips’ metanarrative device is a wink to Eileen, which she claims to have written using a book called The 90-Day Novel in hopes of achieving fame and fortune. ‘There are all these morons making millions of dollars,’ she told the Guardian in 2016, ‘so why not me?’

Death in Her Hands was written five years ago, she has said — just after completing her short story collection Homesick for Another World (2017) and before the widely acclaimed My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018). But while both Moshfegh’s short and long fiction usually enthral with her antiheroes’ quirky takes on life, Death in Her Hands is heavy-handed and not nearly as much fun. ‘It’s a rather dark, damning way to begin a story: the pronouncement of a mystery whose investigation is futile,’ Vesta muses. ‘Was futility a subject worthy of exploration...?’ The jury, I’m afraid, is out.