Death in Her Hands: Ottessa Moshfegh

Published by Penguin Press

Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”

Vesta, a woman in her 70s, has recently been widowed. After her husband’s death, she sells her house and buys an isolated cabin near a lake across the country, where she lives by herself with her dog Charlie. She finds this note on a walk with Charlie in the woods surrounding the cottage.

But there is no body. No evidence of murder. No indication of who Magda was. Or even of who wrote the note. Someone had obviously left it for Vesta—the woods around the cabin belong to her, and no one else goes there.

Vesta becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. She cannot find any trace of a Magda in the nearby town. But she can imagine the woman: young, dark-haired and tough, probably an immigrant from Belarus because of her name.

Bit by bit, Vesta dreams up the solution to the mystery in her own head. She fleshes out Magda’s life and the lives of the people around her: the boy who left the note (she has decided it was a boy who was in love with Magda), and his mother Shirley, in whose house Magda is renting a room.

Then Vesta finds that the fictional world she created starts to impinge on her real life. Do these people actually exist? What is really going on?

More than a murder mystery, this is a book about a woman slowly losing her mind. It is a first-person narrative, so you get inside Vesta’s head. She is still mourning for her husband, who was the centre of her life. As she remembers the years they spent together, it is clear that he was a man who controlled Vesta’s life and did not let her realize her full potential. As she realizes this, her anger with him gets mixed up with her protective feelings for Magda, the young girl who has obviously fallen foul of an older man.

I thought the book was really clever: Ottessa Moshfegh builds her story on the shaky foundation of a note of four short lines which might or might not be true. Almost everything revolves around that note. The details of Vesta’s long marriage come into focus bit by bit, revealing the cracks behind what seemed like a good relationship. To add to this, Vesta is not a reliable narrator, so you never really know where you are.

As you get pulled into Vesta’s world, you lose your bearings, just as she does. Until the shocking end.

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