P D Dawson
Death in her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh - A Review
While on her daily walk with her dog in the nearby woods, our protagonist comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground with stones. Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn't me. Here is her dead body.
Shaky even on her best days, she is also alone, and new to this area, having moved here from her longtime home after the death of her husband, and now deeply alarmed. Her brooding about the note grows quickly into a full-blown obsession, as she explores multiple theories about who Magda was and how she met her fate. Her suppositions begin to find echoes in the real world, and the fog of mystery starts to form into a concrete and menacing shape. But is there either a more innocent explanation for all this, or a much more sinister one – one that strikes closer to home?
What an amazing novel this turned out to be. The story certainly didn't unfold as I had anticipated or could have predicted and it's all the better for it. Mossfegh's inventiveness seeps out through the first-person narrative of its central character Vesta Gul. Vesta, a seventy-two-year-old widow, who stumbling upon a neatly handwritten note in the woods about the murder of a girl named Magda, decides to investigate, or at the very least, conjecture as to the plausibility of the note being real.
We follow her train of thought as she goes over and over the cryptic wording of the note. What starts off as an interesting adventure, however, quickly spirals out of control. She begins to think back on her life, gives her nameless suspects nicknames, and thoroughly brings paranoia and suspicion to the fold and aims it at everyone she meets. We the reader are left to fear for the truth of her conjectures, but we are on the precipice of also questioning her sanity. Was she already a bit mad? Has the situation driven her mad? And we feel this through not only her inner narrative but also her outwards narrative to her dog Charlie. He is the only stable thing in her life, her only true friend left. But what if she lost him too?
I really got a sense that I was inside this character's mind. So rich are her quirks, so savage at times are her thoughts, and so real is her loneliness and isolation, that I really feared for her mental wellbeing. But at the same time, Mossfegh has created a character so viscerally nuanced and complex, showing shades of darkness dappled in light, that I was left wondering if the real mystery might not be Vesta Gul herself, and not the note she found in the woods.