Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Description

“While on her daily walk with her dog in a secluded woods, a woman comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground by stones. “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But there is no dead body. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to this area, alone after the death of her husband, and she knows no one.

Becoming obsessed with solving this mystery, our narrator imagines who Magda was and how she met her fate. With very little to go on, she invents a list of murder suspects and possible motives for the crime. Oddly, her suppositions begin to find correspondences in the real world, and with mounting excitement and dread, the fog of mystery starts to fade into menacing certainty. As her investigation widens, strange dissonances accrue, perhaps associated with the darkness in her own past; we must face the prospect that there is either an innocent explanation for all this or a much more sinister one.

A triumphant blend of horror, suspense, and pitch-black comedy, Death in Her Hands asks us to consider how the stories we tell ourselves both reflect the truth and keep us blind to it. Once again, we are in the hands of a narrator whose unreliability is well earned, and the stakes have never been higher.” – blurb from the publisher’s website.

Recommendation

This book is pretty skippable. I read it because it was picked as this month’s book for my book club, and I’m determined to always finish book club books. If I had picked this book up on my own, I wouldn’t have finished it. I would only recommend checking it out if you specifically like books where the vast majority of the content is the thoughts inside the narrator’s head.

Cover of Death in Her Hands
Cover of Death in Her Hands

Discussion

I know I sometimes poke fun at people who don’t like books where “nothing happens” because I think they miss the point. But today I am that person. So few things happen in Death in Her Hands and it was such a boring read. There are literally like 8 things that happen, as in actual scenes, in the present action of the novel: 

1. Vesta finds a spooky note in the woods. 2. Vesta is shaken by the note and goes grocery shopping early while theorizing about the note. 3: Vesta goes to the library to Ask Jeeves about how to solve a murder. 4. Vesta dumps her terrible husband’s ash-filled urn into a pond. 5. Vesta goes back to the library to do more googling. She helps a woman who lost her keys get home, then finds that her dog Charlie went missing. 6. Vesta looks for Charlie and ends up having a weird conversation with her neighbors. 7. Still looking for Charlie, Vesta talks to the guy at the convenience store. 8. Vesta comes home and Charlie is crazy for some reason. He tries to bite her and she cuts him. He bleeds out. (I’m probably forgetting a scene somewhere but you get the gist).

And it’s not like there’s compensation for this in flashbacks. Vesta ruminates on the past a good deal but that retrospection is very rarely in the form of scenes. So when I say “nothing happens” in this book, I don’t mean that the scenes are all about relatively mundane things and the stakes are low, which is what I think the people I poke fun at mean when they say “nothing happens” in a book like The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. What I mean is that there are very few actual scenes, and of those scenes, only a small subset feature characters speaking to each other. It just doesn’t really do it for me.

Blurbs I’ve seen for this book often talk about the unreliable narrator as the primary achievement of Death in Her Hands, but Vesta’s unreliability is so intense that it’s unclear whether any of the events described in the book actually happened. It becomes a free-fall into an echo chamber of the narrator’s meandering mind. To me, this novel felt like it was written to be analyzed in a high school English class. “Which details of Vesta’s ideas about Magda’s life seem reflective of Vesta’s own life? What can we learn about her relationship with Walter from these details?” “What role did Charlie play in Vesta’s life? What did his death symbolize?” etc etc. A lot of it felt heavy handed to me. There were 10 or so pages near the end that I enjoyed, after Vesta leaves the convenience store and before she kills her dog. I enjoyed the passage where Vesta is lying in the dirt and brooding–”I was a coward for having lived as I did. But never more, I resolved. I would persist despite my fear, despite my innocence, my depravity, my skillful denial of all that had pained me. Never again.”

…And then she kills her dog. I was so upset about that scene; I hate detailed depictions of animal suffering of any kind and it was gut wrenching to read. I definitely missed the narrative point of it in my anger at the scene existing. Pro tip: if you also hate seeing animals killed in stories, there’s a website called “Does the dog die?” to help you avoid that.

I feel like I could be persuaded to like this book more. There are some parts in it that I liked and found worthwhile, and I’m looking forward to my book club discussion about it. But right now, Death in Her Hands is easily my least favorite book I’ve read this year.

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