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BOOK REVIEW

In Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Death in Her Hands,’ a mysterious note leads to self-invention

Ottessa Moshfegh at her home in Los Angeles.
Ottessa Moshfegh at her home in Los Angeles.JESSICA LEHRMAN/NYT

Ottessa Moshfegh, the authorial doyenne of hermits and eccentrics, misanthropes and recluses, is back with another novel narrated by an alienated and alienating woman whose uncanny, idiosyncratic voice compels us to read. “Death in Her Hands” is at once a satire of and metafictional commentary on the mystery/crime genre, a study of trauma’s effect on the psyche, and a reflection on the creative process. The novel is a relatively minor yet nonetheless striking and original contribution to Moshfegh’s remarkable oeuvre.

Unlike the protagonists of Moshfegh’s two previous novels, the National Book Critics Circle nominee and Man Booker prize short-listed “Eileen” (2015) and the flat-out brilliant “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (2018), who are both young women, this time, our heroine is a 72-year-old widow. Vesta Gul has moved across the country to a small, remote town in what seems to be rural Massachusetts after the death of her husband, Walter. She’s bought a “her dream home: a rustic cabin on a lake;” her only companion and confidante is her dog, Charlie.

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One morning, on a walk with Charlie through the birch woods, Vesta stumbles upon a note. It reads: “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, no blood, and no articles of clothing, "just the note on the ground." Surprisingly, this is just what Vesta needs. Lonely and bored, disenchanted with an area that has “no ghosts or romance left,” an avid watcher of murder mystery shows, Vesta quickly decides it is her duty to solve this crime. Doing so allows her to shed her identity as “a feeble, worn-down old lady,” and reinvent herself as a Jessica Fletcher or Miss Marple, under-estimated because of their age and gender yet bravely and ingeniously on the hunt for clues, suspects, motives, and a killer.

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Vesta creates an extensive backstory for Magda’s murder with a colorful cast of characters, some invented, some from her real life, as the suspects. Magda herself — “teenaged, lithe and slouchy,” a Belarusian immigrant with a “mysterious past” — seems like a quintessential character from Moshfegh’s fiction, especially her short story collection “Homesick for Another World.”

Like Moshfegh’s other heroines, Vesta is prickly, judgmental, and difficult to love. Dismissing her neighbors as “blue collar and dull,” inveighing against “fatsos,” Vesta fancies herself better than those around her. But what makes her endearing are her bracing honesty, her yearning for a larger life, and her resistance to scripts and conventions.

Vesta’s self-reinvention as a capable and plucky detective and an inventive storyteller is, we come to see, a way of resisting the labels Walter had foisted on her. First presented as a loving husband, Walter, a professor of epistemology, slowly emerges as “condescending and controlling,” cruel and narcissistic. He spent the marriage “constantly belittling” Vesta, mocking her physical appearance, scolding and shaming her. Walter’s voice still haunts her, weaving in and out of her “mindspace … like a nosy adversary,” and the novel is on one level a journey toward an exorcism of his ghost, his shaping narratives, his constraining and constricting voice.

And so what initially seems to be a novel about grief becomes instead a novel about trauma and survival. Rather than mourning Walter, it becomes increasingly clear, Vesta is mourning herself. Bit by bit, via her yarn-spinning about Magda, she is able to acknowledge her own resentment and rage at being “held hostage,” by Walter. She admits her guilt about wishing and hoping and willing Walter to die. His death was in and on her hands.

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If Magda’s and Walter’s death are in some sense in Vesta’s hands, so too is her own. Haunted by an acute sense of the dwindling days left to her, agonized by the pain of a wasted life, Vesta is eager to live. “Since his death, I’d grown to be more poetic in my thinking,” Magda tells us. “Too much magic was dashed by cold logic,” she adds.

Now, poetry and magic, and all their attendant qualities and conditions, even the enigmatic, dark, and sinister ones, are what Vesta seeks — and finds. Evoking Yeats’s apocalyptic “The Second Coming,” seizing on Blake’s “The Voice of the Ancient Bard,” and writing her own poems, Vesta becomes a kind of mad poet, noticing things others don’t, feeling intensely, creating patterns out of chaos.

To dismiss Vesta as merely insane or paranoid would be to miss the point. Moshfegh has called “Death in Her Hands” a loneliness story; Vesta, wandering lonely as a cloud, finds a cure for loneliness in her imagination. As unhinged and bizarre as she might seem, full of conspiracy theories and apparently random suspicions, Vesta’s interpretations and creations are crucial to her personal growth, pursued on her own terms and not via the self-help books “that offered… banal instructions on how to improve oneself.”

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As she emerges from her abusive marriage’s world of death — the death of her dreams, her future, and her sense of self — and follows her “own whims and fancies,” Vesta is reborn as a “demented” plotter, an inspired creator, an imaginatively fertile being. Blake called on the “youth of delight” to find the “opening morn” after nights of stumbling over “bones of the dead." Vesta, no longer her namesake’s hearth-tender, seeks a last dawn of undomesticated excitation.

DEATH IN HER HANDS

By Ottessa Moshfegh

Penguin Press, 272 pages, $27

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’