literary journalism

Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Death in Her Hands’

Like Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel Eileen (2015), Death in Her Hands plays with the conventions of noir. Vesta Gul, a recently widowed 72-year-old, lives in a secluded lake cabin in rural New England. Walking her dog one day in the woods, she finds a cryptic note under a rock: ‘Her name was Magda,’ it reads. ‘Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.’ With no trace of a body or other clues in sight, Vesta pockets the note. Is it a prank, she wonders? Or ‘the beginning of a story tossed out as a false start, a bad opening’?

What follows is less of a whodunnit than a portrait of paranoiac unravelling in isolation. As Vesta’s imaginings eclipse her reality, she increasingly experiences what Moshfegh has called ‘Shirley Jackson moments’ — when ‘the everyday world becomes tinted with a sheen of terror’. Inspired by a list of ‘TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS!’ found while sleuthing online,Vesta invents an elaborate backstory for Magda, including local suspects and their motives for murder. Through her self-talk, we learn more about Vesta’s past, including the relationship with her late husband, who emerges as having been abusive and unfaithful. By crafting a story for Magda, it is her own life — and death — that Vesta takes in her hands…

Read the full article online in The Spectator

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