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Book review: Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Death in Her Hands’ kicks off like murder mystery, but missing dead body is beside the point

Death in her Hands (Penguin Press)
Death in her Hands (Penguin Press)
By Rosa Boshier Special to the Washington Post

“Her name was Magda,” Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel, “Death in Her Hands,” begins. “Nobody will ever know who killed her.” With this, the reader is dropped into a careening search for a possible murder victim led by the elderly Vesta Gul. In the wake of her husband’s death, Vesta moves into an abandoned summer camp for girls in Levant, a remote East Coast town. After finding a note in the woods claiming that Magda was murdered, Vesta takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of the mystery. “It wasn’t me,” reads the anonymous note. “Here is her dead body.” However, her body, or any trace of it, is nowhere to be found.

“Death in Her Hands” pokes fun at the boilerplate detective novel by using its template to tell a mostly static story. Through a meandering inner dialogue that mirrors Vesta’s own solitary and stumbling escapades through the Levant woods, Vesta looks for Magda while inventing her existence. As Vesta begins to fabricate Magda’s past, with some help from the Levant public library computer and the search engine Ask Jeeves, the reader learns more about Vesta’s past. Born to loving but strict Croatian parents and later living in the West with a terse, cheating academic husband from Germany, Vesta has led a predetermined life. As Vesta investigates Magda’s possible lives and murderers, she realizes that life has passed her by. “I’d been young once,” Vesta recalls. “So many dreams had been dashed. But I had dashed them myself. I wanted to be safe, whole, have a future of certainty. One makes mistakes when there is confusion between having a future at all and having the future one wants.” As Vesta gains a better understanding of her own past, she becomes increasingly attached to and protective of Magda’s, who Vesta imagines as a 19-year old Eastern European girl cut down in her prime.

Vesta’s mental spirals may seem familiar. “Death in Her Hands” eerily lays out an anthem to the world’s current condition of isolation. During quarantine many of us have been suffering from the same crowded mind. However, for Vesta, this psychic confinement is freeing. After years of living with stringent, controlling Walter, Vesta is finally free to exercise her agency through her imagination. “Death in Her Hands” is a book that casts loneliness and freedom in unexpected lights. Vesta is haunted by the realization that she has never made her own choices. “I saw clearly how I had abandoned my roots in order to live a more comfortable life with Walter,” she reflects. Even Vesta’s faithful dog Charlie eventually betrays her, but these betrayals eventually push Vesta further toward independence. After years of being in service to the people around her, Vesta is finally free to be alone, and what’s more, to invent her own company, namely Magda.

Moshfegh has become a master of marginalized women: isolated, adrift, just as disgusted with themselves as with the outside world. Her breakout book, “Eileen,” featured a sullen juvenile hall worker terrified of her own sexuality and fascinated by her own feces. In Moshfegh’s second literary hit, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” the beautiful but amoral protagonist devises a cocktail of prescription pills to ensure she sleeps for an entire year. This “rest” is filmed by a renowned conceptual artist. Compared to these characters, Vesta’s quirks are tame. Yet like her counterparts, she is a convincing authority on her own experience, confident in the logic of her self-isolation and worldviews. These heroines’ claims and motivations can at times be outrageous, but never wholly unreasonable or groundless. It’s hard to argue with Vesta when she maintains that people “lied all the time. It was part of what kept us whole as individuals.”

“Death in Her Hands” is not so much about solving a death as it is about conjuring a life. In its apparent plotlessness, it posits philosophical questions about the meaning of mortality. Through the existential crisis that Magda’s supposed death elicits, Vesta begins to understand the difference between going through the motions of life and really living. By the end of the book, we see that Magda is merely a portal for Vesta to consider her own life, and ultimately decide upon her own death. From Vesta’s perspective, there is freedom in choosing one’s own destiny, even in death. “Her name was Vesta,” Vesta thinks as the book closes. “That was what I meant to write all along – my story, my last lines.”

Boshier is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, the Guardian and Vice, among other publications.

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