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NPR Arts & Life

Fascinating, Messy 'Death In Her Hands' Is A Portrait Of An Unraveling Mind

Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Vesta Gul, a widow in her seventies, has relocated from the Northern Midwest leaving behind the home she shared with her husband Walter, for a cabin at a decommissioned Girl Scout camp in an unspecified Northeastern state. There she lives simply with her beloved dog Charlie, taking long rambling walks through the woods and interacting with virtually no one.

Until the day when Vesta finds a note under a rock that reads: "Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn't me. Here is her dead body."

What would you do, if you found a note like that? Some of us might ignore it. Some might chuckle and attach it to a pinboard. Some might show it to a spouse or the police. Still others, like Vesta, become sucked into a rabbit hole of what-ifs and wonderment, looking for questions in a life that has had too many answers already.

Readers who have read and loved Moshfegh's Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation may find less to love in this strange, affectless protagonist. The author has said that she wrote the manuscript between those other two novels and put it away for a while. It's neither as energetic as the horror story of Eileen, nor as thought-provoking and relevant as Rest and Relaxation.

But Death In Her Hands does provide a deep character sketch of one woman's unraveling. The minute Vesta heads to the local library and types "Who killed Magda?" into a search engine (her time period delineated by her use of Ask Jeeves), we know she's losing her grip on reality. She constructs a profile of Magda in her head, making her a Belorussian teenaged temporary worker with unwashed hair who lives in a local woman's basement apartment.

If the unraveling Vesta experiences were limited to making up a mystery story, well, we might be able to think of her as an aging Harriet the Spy, cooking up drama to sustain her lonely existence through a New England winter. The key word, however, is "lonely." The more Vesta indulges her mystery fantasies, the more we see how isolated she has become from the rest of the world, from her own past, and from herself.

In each of her novels, Moshfegh investigates what happens to a woman cut off from the world through her own choice, even when that choice is dictated by another person's wrongdoing (as in Eileen). At first, Vesta tells us superficial details that make her life with Walter sound pleasant, if boring; as the story progresses, she reveals that the German-born Walter had Nazi sympathies, and a few Nazi tendencies, too; he is imperious and cruel, insisting on having things his way and showering her with insults about her intellect.

Vesta's quick departure from her married home to this lakeside hovel might be evidence enough of her reaction to long trauma. Is her even quicker descent into irrationality evidence of that trauma, too, or is there dementia involved? Wisely, Moshfegh doesn't diagnose; she simply shows. Strange things begin to happen, from the destruction of Vesta's vegetable garden to the death of Charlie. The few people with whom Vesta does engage seem, through her eyes, malevolent and watchful.

This is not a murder mystery, conventional or otherwise. This is a portrait of a person losing her mind, from inside her mind, while she tries to keep it, using a pretend murder mystery.

This is not a murder mystery, conventional or otherwise. This is a portrait of a person losing her mind, from inside her mind, while she tries to keep it, using a pretend murder mystery. It's also a portrait of how a person can become so cut off and beyond help in our modern, increasingly connected culture, how, if some people can remain in contact 24/7 via text and chat, others can lose contact for days, weeks, months at a time.

When the book's end comes, Vesta thinks: "My name was Vesta. I lived and died. Nobody will ever know me, just the way I've always liked it." She's not dead yet. Maybe she will be, maybe she won't be. The statement isn't the end to a mystery, but it also isn't the beginning to one. Vesta, whose unreliability is almost absolute, is locked into her own mind, where nobody will ever know her, regardless of what happens next.

Ottessa Moshfegh has crafted an unusual, messy, and fascinating look into the "little gray cells" so beloved of Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective created by Vesta Gul's beloved Agatha Christie. Readers who wade through some of the more confusing passages and remember Vesta's state will be rewarded by the portrait of a woman that remains in their own, rational minds for a long time.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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