What does it mean to understand a work of fiction? Does it come in the form of being able to recount the plot points from A to Z linearly, or do you not truly get something until you can see what exists behind the words on the page—or, that is to say, seeing what the author was trying to do? If it’s the former, then “Death in Her Hands” is an easy novel to understand. While out on a walk one morning with her dog Charlie, Vesta comes across a note in the woods “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Except, there is no body in the vicinity. What follows for the rest of the novel is Vesta trying to solve this little mystery. But, if understanding comes from the latter, then I have to say I am not quite sure I get the main thesis of Moshfegh’s novel. But I’ll give it my best guess for the sake of this review.
“Death in Her Hands” is Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel after “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” and “Eileen”, and if you are familiar with either of those two books, then you may feel right at home with “Death in Her Hands” Written in Moshfegh’s traditional, intricate, vine-like prose, the novel’s protagonist and narrator is a lonely elderly woman who lives in a cabin on a decommissioned girl scout campground. She is detached from the world around her, and in a sense, reality as a whole. And, as she moves forward through the narrative, it becomes evident that Vesta’s mind is slowly deteriorating.
If you are going into “Death in Her Hands” looking for a by the numbers, traditional murder mystery, then it would be best if you looked for another book to read. What follows after Vesta finds the note is a metanarrative that ruminates on the process of writing a story, and on the stories we tell ourselves to make our lives seem better by comparison. Every “detail” that we learn of Magda’s “murder” is 100% made up by Vesta. She creates, without any evidence, an entire backstory and tragic death for a woman who, even though I finished the book, I am not sure even existed. At one point, Vesta goes to the library and looks up an article on the computer called “Tips for Mystery Writers”. She even prints out a sheet that writers sometimes use to flesh out their characters at the beginning of the writing process. Vesta fills it out with information such as physical description, hometown, friends and relationships.
Throughout the book, I asked myself, “is this a joke?” Did Moshfegh spend almost 300 pages just toying with her audience? Because that would be a very Moshfegh thing to do at this point. You might have noticed I have not spent much time talking about the plot, and that’s because most of the action takes place in Vesta’s head. Not much that is not pure speculation actually occurs and there are only a few locations that Vesta travels to.
So, I return to my initial question, what does it mean to “get” a work of fiction? If this was indeed a meta-joke on the process of writing itself, I must then ask, what’s the punchline, and who is it on? Is it on us, the readers, for expecting one thing for our investment, but getting nothing in return? Is it making fun of other mystery writers and how formulaic the genre can be? Or, is Moshfegh just amusing herself here?
I know it seems like I didn’t enjoy this novel, but that is not the case, I’m just kind of, well…confused. None of this is to say that “Death in Her Hands” is lazily written, or that Moshfegh did not put effort or care into her novel. There are interesting aspects to be found, and many parts are even quite humorous. Plus, it is easy to feel Vesta’s unease about the whole situation. So, it’s obvious Moshfegh was reaching for something here that many other writers would not attempt to do.
Here’s one last question, is “Death in Her Hands” worth your time and money? I guess that is sort of my job to tell you, right? Well, if you like puzzles, and solving mysteries, then perhaps, solving the mystery about a book that’s about a mystery is right up your alley.
By Gregory Bertrand