My Mixed Feelings About ‘Death in Her Hands’ by Ottessa Moshfegh (Book Review)

A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms.

Publication Date: April 21, 2020

Genres: Literary Fiction, Mystery, Thriller

Summary: While on her daily walk with her dog in a secluded woods, a woman comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground by stones. “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. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to this area, alone after the death of her husband, and she knows no one.

Becoming obsessed with solving this mystery, our narrator imagines who Magda was and how she met her fate. With very little to go on, she invents a list of murder suspects and possible motives for the crime. Oddly, her suppositions begin to find correspondences in the real world, and with mounting excitement and dread, the fog of mystery starts to fade into menacing certainty. As her investigation widens, strange dissonances accrue, perhaps associated with the darkness in her own past; we must face the prospect that there is either an innocent explanation for all this or a much more sinister one.

A triumphant blend of horror, suspense, and pitch-black comedy, Death in Her Hands asks us to consider how the stories we tell ourselves both reflect the truth and keep us blind to it. Once again, we are in the hands of a narrator whose unreliability is well earned, and the stakes have never been higher.

My thoughts:

It’s difficult to describe my feelings after finishing Death in Her Hands, a short, mystery novel following a 72-year old woman named Vesta who wanders upon a note in the woods which says, “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Only, the note does not accompany the said body. This sets Vesta off on a quest to learn more about this self-contained mystery, creating a fictional narrative in her mind as to what happened truly happened to “Magda”.

While the concept of this story sounded right up my alley, it left much to be desired because the entire novel– that I sped through because it is gripping despite its lack of plot– is simply Vesta’s stream of consciousness as she ponders who Magda was, who killed her, what her past was like, etc. She constructs this narrative for Magda who is a representation of Vesta’s loneliness after her husband passes away and she moves to a new town where only her dog keeps her company. Vesta’s disheveled narrative makes Magda the center of the story because Vesta, alone, lives a mundane life unworthy of being the center of this narrative.

While the fact that we follow an unreliable narrator whose grip on reality is loose due to her age and an overwhelming amount of loneliness was interesting, there wasn’t any actual development of the plot or any connection that I could form with the protagonist who lives an isolated life where, if she does come in contact with others, she judges them harshly and critiques their weight or outward appearance (the fatphobia in this book was not needed whatsoever, but one can claim it was added to create an unlikable elderly woman who is judgemental towards those younger than her).

From the moment Vesta finds this note, there is no actual progression of the plot from there, onwards. There is no real mystery or overlying darkness to this story that is gripping but makes one wonder why they wasted their time reading a story that has no actual plot. We are simply stuck in Vesta’s mind as she loses her grip on reality and she comes to terms with the fact that she has no real company to hold onto and she has lived a safe life full of regrets, but… that’s it.

I wish I could have connected with the story or the protagonist, more. I wish there was an actual development to the plot after she stumbles upon this note, but instead, we are forced to follow along with Vesta’s sporadic internal monologue only to be served a quickly wrapped up ending that made me wonder why I picked this book up in the first place. In short, the concept/synopsis was more interesting than the book itself, which let me down, a lot.  

CONTENT WARNINGS: Death of an animal, fatphobia

Death in her Hands links: Goodreads Barnes and Noble | Amazon

NOTE: A physical copy of this novel was provided to me by Penguin Press. All opinions are my own.