Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Published by Penguin Random House

WHEN Vesta Gud discovers a note in her beloved beech wood, secured with a number of black pebbles within the undergrowth of the forest, she decides she has no option but to solve the mystery it holds. “Her name was Magda”, it reads. “Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”

With the absence of an actual corpse in the vicinity, we know as much as Vesta does about the enigma. But Vesta feels a responsibility to investigate, and does so in a most unusual and, some may say, irreverent way.

Vesta is a recent blow-in to the area, a rural community somewhere in the North West of American. Her husband had died, the house was too big, his presence too strong, so a decision was made to get a dog, move across the country and spend her twilight years on the site of a former summer camp.

Her isolation is paramount to the story. She feels outwardly content to go about her business without interruption, with her canine companion by her side. She has a daily routine to stick to that keeps her going and a disdain for the people of the neighbouring town, who she describes as undereducated and over-fed.

She’s casually judgmental, displaying an institutional snobbery gained from being the wife of a boorish and domineering professor in a college town. That she never fit in there either doesn’t quite register, while she builds her walls higher to protect herself from hurt.

Having nothing more to go on than the note, she begins to imagine an identity for this Magda, as an exotic fellow out-of-towner who found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong sort of people.

The townsfolk she encounters, from the policeman who stops her for speeding, to the disfigured owner of a small garage and convenience store and a woman she meets in the library, all become possible suspects in the mystery, which develops into a spiralling and all-consuming game of make-believe.

The action takes place over the course of only a few days, and is entirely from Vesta’s point of view. It’s not that she’s telling her story to us readers, but we can read her thoughts, in as close to real time as you can get with a novel, discounting time for sleep and the sort of mindless activity one tends to switch off from.

Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy? As the narrative unfolds Vesta’s grip on reality appears to unfurl. Her approach to solving the case is to make it up as she goes along, by utilising a character construction chart that she finds on the internet to flesh out the individuals concerned; Magda herself, the writer of the note, who Vesta christens Brett in order to give him some substance, his mother Shirley, who she invents in order to provide an alibi.

Death in Her Hands is an entirely original and strange tale, unsettling but not without plenty of instances of droll humour. Vesta, in embarking on this quest, begins to find her voice after years of subjugation by her husband, working her own long-held grievances out as she identifies more and more with the victim.

There’s a feeling that she knows herself that her mission is a fool’s errand, that she is essentially playing as a child would to make sense of the world, but there’s also a darker element, a descent into a sort of madness that gave me pause about laughing at the more mirthful side of the endeavour.

The novel’s title is revealed as a clever play on words, that further establishes the narrative and Vesta’s mind frame as something different from that that has been presented in the genre before. It’s a clever, at times quite funny but also rather a disquieting read, that firmly places the reader in the mind of the protagonist, disconcerted and troubled as it is.

Unusual and provoking, Death in Her Hands is a very different kind of murder mystery.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 16 09 20

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