Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh review – whodunnit and other questions

Over the past six years, Ottessa Moshfegh has dedicated herself so assiduously to writing about people in self-isolation you have to wonder what she knew that the rest of us didn’t.

The 39-year-old American author has built a cult readership with mordant stories about alienated female outsiders written in a flat, disaffected voice. Extreme solitude can bring clarity but more often leads to a bleak, delusionary existence. Her protagonists are bored, amoral and seek oblivion; they usually have grotesque, violent thoughts. In her 2017 short story collection, Homesick for Another World, the most sympathetic narrator is a homicidal child: “Earth is the wrong place for me, always was and will be until I die,” she says.

You could say these characters are modern female analogues of the radically self-sabotaging antiheroes of late-19th century works like Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground or Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. And like Nabokov’s unreliable narrators, we can never take them at their word.

Moshfegh’s Booker-shortlisted novel Eileen (2015) was a 1960s noir about an inward-looking anorexic alcoholic young woman (“I hated almost everything”). This was followed by My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), a darkly funny book about a beautiful, twentysomething New Yorker who spends a year hibernating in a narcotic haze. In between these two novels, she wrote Death in Her Hands, which has only just been disinterred, and reveals Moshfegh is not only interested in jaded young women but jaded old women too.

A slow-build whodunnit, the novel inhabits the “mindspace” of Vesta Gul, a widow in her early 70s who lives alone in the woods with her dog. Ostensibly it’s about her amateur investigation into a murder on her land, but we soon realise Moshfegh is returning to the themes of loneliness and confinement. Again, we encounter a woman trying to take control of her own narrative by opting out of community, conventional relationships and consumption; again she is living off an inheritance from a despised family member; again she becomes unhinged even as she clings to a highly controlled routine.

By the time the story begins, Vesta is a year into her isolation in a lakeside cabin on the site of a former Girl Scout camp, where she moved after her German scientist husband, Walter, died. But she was already leading a lonely existence in an upmarket small town. Walter disliked her making friends, so Vesta spent most of her time watching murder mysteries on TV. Early on in the book, we realise her mind has been held hostage by violent, erotic fantasies.

Walking her dog, Charlie, she finds a note in the birch woods that 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 sign of a body, nor even a “tangle of hair caught on the coarse fallen branches, no red wool scarf damp with morning dew festooned across the bushes”. The hair and the scarf are Vesta’s inventions. Instead of calling the police, she pockets the note and embarks on her “creative endeavour, not some calculated procedure”.

Her investigation is patchy at best. After some cursory inquiries on the search engine Ask Jeeves, she decides that Magda was a teenager from Belarus sent to America to work in a fast-food restaurant and was living with a teenage boy, Blake, and his mother, Shirley, who kept her in their basement. She feels sure that the note was written by Blake and entertains grim fantasies of rape and murder. We start to realise the killing may never have taken place, especially when Vesta’s nearest neighbours reveal they are hosting a murder mystery party. But all along, she has been making narrative choices rather than deductions based on facts. She claims to be “powerless” over her mind, yet “dependent on it to conjure up all of my reality around me”.

It’s a clever premise and burnishes Moshfegh’s claim as one of the most distinctive American writers around. But Death in Her Hands never acquires enough dramatic or intellectual momentum to make you care. It’s also very repetitive. The writer once said: “A good short story can break my heart in a way a novel just can’t,” and you feel this story could have been covered at less than half the length.

Occasionally, it appears to be ripening into a portrait of loneliness in old age. There’s a poignant description of the futility of running a bath when Vesta’s body now seems to her “so little, a little thing I had to keep clean, like washing a single dish one uses constantly”. But I struggled to see what Moshfegh wanted to achieve. It could be a send-up of lonely women who become obsessed with true crime. Or it could be a postmodern satire about the process of writing fiction. But it often feels more self-indulgent than radical. When the narrator is constantly asking what the point in anything is, the reader might be inclined to wonder the same thing.