Death in Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh’s intricate and unsettling new novel, appears at first to occupy familiar territory ... Vesta’s speculations are every bit as vivid as Eileen’s ... Death in Her Hands is another tricksy novel. But it makes no real secret of its tricksiness—which is in itself grounds for mistrust. Vesta’s unreliability is flagged so thoroughly in the early pages that you begin to suspect that Moshfegh is playing some kind of higher-order game with narrative tension ... But creating this sort of narrative tension isn’t quite what Moshfegh is up to—or, rather, it’s only a fraction of what she's up to. The unreliable narrator, as a technique, appeals to novelists who are interested in the gaps (tragic, comic) that yawn between how we conceive of ourselves and how the world perceives us to be. Moshfegh has toyed with this technique in much of her work ... Moshfegh knows that when human company is swept away, a baroque inner life can often flourish, and Vesta’s increasingly monstrous inner life grows to occlude her view of the world ... it’s a haunting meditation on the nature and meaning of art ... Like a surgeon, or a serial killer, Moshfegh flenses her characters, and her readers, until all that’s left is a void. It’s the amused contemplation of that void that gives rise to the dark exhilaration of her work—its wayward beauty, its comedy, and its horror.
Moshfegh gives the old canard about the association between artistic genius and madness an additional twist to arrive at the notion that inventing complex stories about the intersecting lives of entirely imaginary people is itself a species of madness. In Death in Her Hands, the plots devised by novelists uncomfortably resemble the conspiracy delusions of a paranoiac ... Vesta lacks the deliciously shameless antisocial tendencies of Eileen and of the main character of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, who prefers sleeping huge chunks of her life away to dealing with just about anyone—or, at least, Vesta lacks the courage to embrace and celebrate such tendencies. This prevents Death in Her Hands from attaining the perverse grandeur of those two novels. It feels like an interlude, a chamber piece, one of Shirley Jackson’s more claustrophobic short stories stretching its cramped, goblin limbs into novel-length. The minor, idiosyncratic key it strikes does not make it any less enjoyable, and may even make it more so. A bolder, more universal vision of how isolation can drive you nuts would, right now, cut a little too close to the bone.
Occasionally it verges on the poky ... Like a so-so vacation that ripens in your mind and begins to look quite rosy in retrospect, I liked Death in Her Hands more after it was over and I’d let it sit a few days. It has an afterlife in your mind. From a distance, you can savor its trap doors. If I sometimes wished I were sneak-reading one of the author’s other books under the table, well, I am a fool for that high Moshfegh style. Vesta has a vast interior life, but life has reduced her. She’s like an ornamental shrub that’s been ruthlessly espaliered. She put me in mind of the critic Seymour Krim’s comment that so very many people never find 'the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls.'
As the novel proceeds...it becomes clear that the true mystery is how much of what Vesta says the reader should believe. Some of her peculiarities seem harmless and even charming ... But her mind does wander to unexpected and disturbing places ... 'How did people go on with their lives as though death weren’t all around them?' The line is from Moshfegh’s book ... Moshfegh is sounding a related alarm, and it’s just as urgent. We might be inclined to dismiss Vesta as a madwoman, just as we might laugh at the parodic efforts of the woman in My Year of Rest and Relaxation to put her mind out of its misery. But to do so obscures the way each woman’s condition mirrors that of Western elite society in the past decade or so: suspended in a kind of fugue state, projecting our fantasies onto others, medicating our brains with the dopamine hits of smartphone pings. Meanwhile—now more visibly than ever—death is all around us. A recent profile of Moshfegh in this newspaper suggested that her stories of detachment are perfectly suited to this moment of global isolation. But her goal isn’t to lull us to sleep; it’s to wake us up. Why aren’t we paying attention? What are we missing? Isn’t it time for us to start seeing the world as it really is?
Everything that happens in Death feels portentous ... It’s tantalizing for the reader who imagines this might coalesce: that Magda is real, that the camouflage bodysuit will have something to do with finding her body, that Moshfegh might obey some of those tips for mystery writers ... I don’t think Moshfegh’s aim is to explore the falsity of storytelling, and anyway it would be a tall order, given her strategy of detachment, irony, and disgust that keeps the reader at arm’s length. Moshfegh is working in one of the most seductive genres, but without any real conviction. Once you sense that Vesta is not going to solve the mystery, the herrings look a lot less red, and your attention wanders. The text doesn’t hold together as a novel or even as a system for making some point about novels. This isn’t a book about one specific death, but death more generally ... Moshfegh’s dark perspective makes crime fiction and its attendant moods a natural territory for her ... reference to the Holocaust in the text...[is] more glib than anything, an assertion by the author that nothing is off limits, anything can be made a metaphor or, indeed, a joke ... Moshfegh tantalizes with literary mystery, then invokes something more exalted. But what happened to Magda—or what people are named, or why they suffer, or why the world is so grotesque—is not God’s creation; it’s Moshfegh’s. Perhaps there’s a reader who will find epiphany in this. I remain an unbeliever.
Death in Her Hands pokes fun at the boilerplate detective novel by using its template to tell a mostly static story ... Vesta’s mental spirals may seem familiar. Death in Her Hands eerily lays out an anthem to the world’s current condition of isolation ... a book that casts loneliness and freedom in unexpected lights ... Moshfegh has become a master of marginalized women: isolated, adrift, just as disgusted with themselves as with the outside world ... not so much about solving a death as it is about conjuring a life. In its apparent plotlessness, it posits philosophical questions about the meaning of mortality. Through the existential crisis that Magda’s supposed death elicits, Vesta begins to understand the difference between going through the motions of life and really living.
Moshfegh is among the most talented writers working. I can think of no one who writes with greater insight about isolation and the often-macabre manner in which it warps the psyche ... Vesta is a...beguiling character, but it was not the murder mystery she perseverates over that drew me in. The question of how she ended up alone at the end of her life—so isolated that there is nothing and no one to prevent her from receding into a complex imaginative world—is far more engaging ... the account of her life that appears in the form of reminiscences slipped between long fictive digressions tells a darker and more poignant story than the account of any murder.
... her finest novel yet ... a simple conceit, but one that snares its hooks in the reader from the get go, and sustains the novel until its grim denouement ... Moshfegh’s novels are open deceptions; they gleam with noir and genre surfaces, a clever (and marketable) camouflage which the author utilizes to conceal her misanthropic musings on life, death, and the often brutal gap between ... There is something prickly and unpleasant about Moshfegh’s writing, but in a cultural moment where it often feels like American fiction must be safe and aspirational—or else—it also feels refreshingly honest ... Hardly what you’d call 'light reading' for a summer where most of us have been living in some form of isolation, to be sure, but arguably a dark antidote to the complacency of much mainstream fiction.
...revolting and a little funny while suggesting a complex truth ... Death In Her Hands will not satisfy as a strict mystery, in as much as the author does not appear concerned with keeping its secrets concealed for the vast majority of the book ... As ever, Moshfegh is recursive in her exposition, the mode in which the writer seems most comfortable ... Shame is an animating force in much of Moshfegh’s work, and here she lets it rip ... As the tension of the central mystery ebbs, the book becomes less a whodunit than a meditation on the act of creation itself and just what compels people to invent ... Here Moshfegh’s propensity to toy with absurdity occasionally tips over into outright ridiculousness and full-on cheese ... despite the fast pace of the prose and Moshfegh’s expert calibration of her protagonist’s mental state, one can hear the wheels grinding.
The book is an extension of what Moshfegh has always so brilliantly done: a darkly comic, brutal examination of the mucky corners of the human condition with electric prose that chills—like a smile with blood-stained teeth ... we’re reminded of Moshfegh’s skill in blending a character’s inner consciousness with their perceived reality, an act so seamless that it nearly deceives the reader into believing it’s all true ... despite all its darkness and postmodern cynicism, Mosfegh’s fiction is often about living.
As in Moshfegh’s previous novels, there’s something winking and unreliable about Vesta; what’s new is that there’s also a lot that’s believable and earnest about her ... Moshfegh makes it increasingly clear that this is not a pat thriller with a big, twisted aha, but something more unwieldy—an actually surprising fusion, or confusion, of the levels of the text ... Walter’s exercises in futility always seemed purposeful and productive; Vesta’s, we come to realize, are less deluded, yet this only seems to generate more madness. She can’t quite write Walter out of her own elaborate self-dialogue, even when it causes her to break down—a real breakdown, not a caricature, which Moshfegh paces beautifully and recursively. She allows the reader’s skepticism of Vesta to build by accumulating coincidences, impossibilities, and overdeterminations until Vesta recognizes that she, too, has been playing herself.
... the author’s latest treatise on malignant isolation, a rambling, close-up psychodrama that explores the mysteries of an unreliable mind ... Moshfegh is a gifted writer, with an excellent ear for rhythm and detail, and her prose, along with the promise that something interesting might happen, makes the book a quick and sometimes enjoyable read. Unfortunately, it never stops feeling like an extended writing exercise, aimless and haphazardly conceived, bloated at 260 pages with generous margins ... a high-handed spin on genre that lacks both the elegance of a successful literary experiment and the substance of the real thing.
Death in Her Hands has some strengths. The novel works slowly and carefully, tracking a woman’s descent into madness at a nearly excruciating pace. It showcases Moshfegh’s mastery of character psychology ... Vesta Gul gives Sara Goldfarb (portrayed by Ellen Burstyn in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream) a run for her money ... And yet, the fact remains that a crazy woman’s fantasies comprise the majority of Death in Her Hands ... Large stretches of the novel feel intentionally agonizing (we spend 20 pages with Vesta as she types things into AskJeeves.com at her local library). Moshfegh’s use of thematic and linguistic repetition, which in her other works conjures a haunting, cerebral trance, feels just a little too circular this time around. As we listen to Vesta’s continual creation and destruction of Magda’s story, we hear Moshfegh writing through her narrator, which isn’t necessarily a good thing ... Death in Her Hands feels like another exercise in the end. There is a premise and a narrator. Both are spread quite thin. The concluding sequence shines, but the majority of the novel falls flat. Though Vesta is a more compelling narrator than Eileen, and her story works more effectively than Eileen’s, Death in Her Hands is too light on the bitter bleakness that powered My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and it most certainly does not possess the crafted perfection of Moshfegh’s short stories or her novella.
It’s impossible to ignore, reading Death in Her Hands, how much detective work resembles writing a story ... Death in Her Hands contains both the assurance that usually marks Moshfegh’s writing...and a self-conscious anxiety about every narrative choice ... Death in Her Hands shows another way of dealing with loneliness and unnameable grief: desperately clamping onto a familiar story form in order to organize one’s pain, fear and the voices in one’s head ... The shakiness of Death in Her Hands — the endless metacriticism, the glimpses into the alternate rushes of smugness and despair that make up the writing process, the cascade of visions and plot twists that bring it all to a resolution — makes it a curious read, both out of control and hyperaware of the lack of control. And yet there’s something touching about this, which makes it appealing even at its rough moments.
Almost all of Death in Her Hands unfolds in Vesta’s head as she attempts to understand what happened to Magda. Her voice, both strange and assertive, propels the narrative forward. And as her imagination conjures vivid characters and dialogue, it’s easy to slip into Vesta’s conception of reality ... Moshfegh clues her readers in early that this murder mystery may be neither murder nor mystery after all. But that’s ultimately beside the point ... Though Death in Her Hands can be studied for prescient insights into life in 2020, the stories that Vesta tells herself give it a timeless quality. Sometimes, there are healing powers in fantasy.
Readers who have read and loved Moshfegh's Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation may find less to love in this strange, affectless protagonist ... But Death In Her Hands does provide a deep character sketch of one woman's unraveling ... Ottessa Moshfegh has crafted an unusual, messy, and fascinating look into the 'little gray cells' ... Readers who wade through some of the more confusing passages and remember Vesta's state will be rewarded by the portrait of a woman that remains in their own, rational minds for a long time.
The novel is a relatively minor yet nonetheless striking and original contribution to Moshfegh’s remarkable oeuvre ... Like Moshfegh’s other heroines, Vesta is prickly, judgmental, and difficult to love ... But what makes her endearing are her bracing honesty, her yearning for a larger life, and her resistance to scripts and conventions ... what initially seems to be a novel about grief becomes instead a novel about trauma and survival ... To dismiss Vesta as merely insane or paranoid would be to miss the point ... Vesta’s interpretations and creations are crucial to her personal growth, pursued on her own terms and not via the self-help books 'that offered… banal instructions on how to improve oneself.'
... with a plot that is almost entirely hypothetical, Death in Her Hands is not a page-turner. There are a scant amount of scenes where Vesta talks to another person, and even in those scenes, she is unreliable, and not in a titillating way ... unfortunately, the meta-jokes don't save the book from how tedious, anticlimactic, and yes, slow, it is. By the end of the book, I couldn't help but feel like Ms. Moshfegh was simply trolling me ... It seems like at this point in her career, she no longer cares about telling a compelling story. She has readers right where any writer would want them: we'll keep buying her books, regardless of how disappointing they are because she has a reputation, albeit short, for writing good stuff. With Death in Her Hands, she's taken the joke too far and I hope with her next book, she gets on with it already.
... despite that interesting premise, too often it gets lost in Vesta’s monologues, and the novel’s slow pace only furthers that distance ... Throughout the course of the novel, Moshfegh toes the line between text and subtext, with Vesta imagining the narrative before it presents itself in front of her just as she envisioned ... while Vesta’s digressions are at times moving, and Moshfegh’s meta-commentary on the writer and reader is interesting, the novel struggles to move beyond that. It’s clear early on that no answers will be found, but Moshfegh seems to lean too heavily on Vesta’s internal narration to keep the pages turning, and there’s little in the way of action to back it up. The result is muddled; tentative ... There are gems in here; which make it all the more disappointing that the book lacks the precision and refinement to truly pull it off.
We have the makings here of a tasty whodunit. But it is best to toss conventional expectations aside. Ottessa Moshfegh is far too interesting a writer to be concerned with the problem-solving at the heart of most mysteries. She prefers questions to answers, and dwelling on what’s mysterious. The concerns that animate Death in Her Hands will be familiar to readers of her other books ... What, for example, does it mean to exist in a body? How should one sensibly spend a day? Just how insidious is it to be loved poorly? And what does madness look like when so much of the world seems insane? ... The novel has elements of genuine suspense, but the real thrill is in occupying Vesta’s buzzing head, which skitters from 'solving' this murder, in her own unorthodox way, to pondering her years under her husband’s thumb ... Ms. Moshfegh has a talent for first-person narratives that feel fresh, strange, unreliable and amusing. Her women (they are mostly women) may indulge in some manic solipsism and have noxious ideas about the world and the people they are forced to share it with, but they are never boring. A fascinating anger courses through these heroines, bred of a complicated resentment for the roles they feel they must play, as wives and daughters, beauties and spinsters ... They often feel trapped, but know they are not blameless, which curdles their angst with self-loathing.
Death in Her Hands pokes fun at the boilerplate detective novel by using its template to tell a mostly static story ... Death in Her Hands is a book that casts loneliness and freedom in unexpected lights ... Moshfegh has become a master of marginalized women: isolated, adrift, just as disgusted with themselves as with the outside world ... Death in Her Hands is not so much about solving a death as it is about conjuring a life. In its apparent plotlessness, it posits philosophical questions about the meaning of mortality ... By the end of the book, we see that Magda is merely a portal for Vesta to consider her own life, and ultimately decide upon her own death.
As with Moshfegh-ian characters past, what’s remarkable here is the treatment of a narrative: Vesta seems at once out-of-sorts and yet only a filter removed from our consciousness ... This idea of requisite improvisation runs as an undercurrent through much of Death in Her Hands, as Moshfegh captures the interiors of a woman without a plan. She writes her problem narrator in clean, crisp sentences; with command and control. She writers a version of us that is us, but freer.
... like watching someone play a choose your own adventure mystery game. But here it’s like there’s a line between the game and real life but it’s hard to find ... Moshfegh blends certain details into multiple possible explanations for the events in Vesta’s mystery. This gives the book a slightly paranoid feel throughout but it also makes a reader wonder if certain lines in the novel give away what’s really happening ... a mystery novel written about how to write a mystery novel and the outlined events have some of that real terse and pulpy thriller-like tension of a mystery novel ... The story allows itself its jokes, it’s funny sometimes ... a little Bolaño-ish with a hint of Ann Quin. It’s charmingly pulpy, a little bit noir ... I don’t mean to compare Moshfegh to be reductive or anything. I’m trying to refer to Moshfegh’s greatness, her own style, her ability to do a lot and address a lot in a narrative that can seem more simple than it is.
If a murder mystery sounds far too straightforward for a writer as masterfully strange as Ottessa Moshfegh...it is; what Death delivers instead is a sort of fractured portrait of madness, a woman slowly unraveling in the corners of her own mind. Without stakes in any real world outcome, though, it’s hard not to feel cornered, too; caught up in an intellectual exercise unworthy of Moshfegh’s prodigious talents ... B-[.]
Dark doesn’t even begin to describe Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel, Death in Her Hands. Try horrifying, macabre, fashionably self-referential, and exceptionally well-written ... As Vesta forces herself to imagine what might have happened, the writing has a tendency to become forced as well. Yet other passages are lovely, filled with lyrical descriptions of the natural world and dead-on observations of rural, small-town life ... If you’re a fan of gothic fiction, Death in Her Hands might just be your cup of tea. If not, come for the dread — and stay for the dog.
... a strange blend of tour de force and dead-end narrative ... Death in Her Hands continues the exploration of extreme interiority that Moshfegh pursued in her previous novel ... fiction premised on an absence of experience, constrained by a character who has no pastimes or human connections to occupy her—at least in the present ... Moshfegh’s powers of invention, as Vesta careers from one supposition to the next, seem inexhaustible ... For readers who can tolerate that much unresolved unreality in their fiction, Death in Her Hands may be just the ticket. And even if you have your doubts about the novel, it’s an odd enough enterprise to make you glad that it exists.
... less a murder mystery, or even a mystery, than a work of metafiction, a story about how we construct our stories, of telling the story of telling the story ... There's little action—once the note is discovered on the top of page one, the trip to the library is the most momentous event for much of the novel ... In its use of irony and indirection to explore Vesta's psychology, Death in Her Hands is reminiscent of Henry James' modern realism; in its attention to the ways in which our mysteries are constructed more than they are solved with language, Death in Her Hands evokes Paul Auster's postmodern detective stories ... In its stripped-down prose and story, Moshfegh offers not a poetic experience, but a noetic one. We are given an almost mystical view into Vesta's mind. When Vesta finds the note, she holds a woman's death in her hands. When we read Moshfegh's book, we hold a woman's life.
...an intense, psychologically driven and female-centric character study (still a rare beast in the publishing world) ... In an industry where women must be portrayed as sympathetic and where only men have the permission to be unlikeable, Moshfegh is one of the few writers (Claire Messud is another) giving voice to feelings of paranoia, self-loathing, and hatred from a female perspective. Vesta is a troubled, lonely, and disagreeable person ... Where Death in Her Hands really gets under the skin, is when, occasionally, the artifice falls away and Vesta doubts her sanity ... As a parody or satire of psychological thrillers and mystery fiction, Death in Her Hands is less effective ... If the novel falls flat in that respect, it’s Moshfegh’s take on abuse, on old age, on loneliness, on the realisation of a life wasted that cuts through like a razor.
... a novel that overturns the standard murder mystery ... It takes a particular audacity to troll the opening of your own novel, to set up and then undercut its premise all in the space of the first three pages...but Moshfegh has always had fun with her writing ... might initially appear to be about Magda, but really it’s a novel about novel writing; about how a storyteller creates narrative, plot and meaning out of otherwise random, insignificant events ... As a traditional murder mystery, Death in Her Hands doesn’t deliver. Readers expecting the touchstones of the genre will find themselves frustrated. Instead, though, the novel cracks open like a matryoshka doll, revealing multiple tales within ... lacks the wild, reckless brilliance of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but its dark, devious portrait of the troubled psychology of a lonely, stymied woman makes a mark all of its own.
As the beautifully described mountain scenery around Vesta’s cabin changes season, peculiar townsfolk provide perfectly filmic bit-parts (the man in the bait shop with the scarred face; the dying woman dressed in a Victorian gown; the Cujo-like dog). But despite the masterly scene-setting and sharp characterisation we get further from the truth about Magda ... Unlike most thrillers, even the clever, twisty ones with unreliable narrators, it is impossible to guess whodunnit. Whodunnit is emphatically not what Moshfegh is interested in. This is a story about what might happen when a woman takes charge; when she finds the courage to step away from the men who wanted to define her. For Vesta, splendidly alone at last, stepping out of her cabin into the forest and into Magda’s story, which may or may not be her own, is a gloriously visceral mystery she is finally ready to embrace ... isn’t scary or exciting enough to work as a thriller, but it’s a lot more scary and exciting than much contemporary feminist storytelling. There are moments when Moshfegh is as wise and wild as Ali Smith or Rebecca Solnit, and as gifted a scribe of nature as Annie Dillard or Thoreau. She may not be the next great American novelist, but she’s certainly one to watch.
...reveals Moshfegh is not only interested in jaded young women but jaded old women too ... 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 ... 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.
A fractured, startlingly human narrator in Moshfegh’s...inimitable style, Vesta quickly reveals a relentless imagination matched only by her desire to uncover the truth ... Cleverly unraveling, linguistically brilliant, and limning the limits of reality, this will speak to fans of literary psychological suspense.
...unnerving ... This doesn’t register quite as indelibly as Moshfegh’s earlier novels, as Vesta is not as compelling as Eileen’s title heroine or the unnamed protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Still, recommended for fans of the author, as well as Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
Vesta slowly reveals herself as what we might now call a Moshfegh-ian lead: a woman driven to isolation and feeling disassociated from herself, looking for ways to cover up for a brokenness she's loath to confront. Over the course of the novel, Vesta’s projections about Magda's identity become increasingly potent and heartbreaking symbols of wounds from the narrator's childhood and marriage ... You simultaneously worry about Vesta and root for her, and Moshfegh’s handling of her story is at once troubling and moving ... An eerie and affecting satire of the detective novel.
Moshfegh’s disorienting latest...sends up the detective genre with mixed results ... Moshfegh clearly revels in fooling with mystery conventions, but the narrative becomes so unreliable that it almost seems random, and readers may wish for more to grasp onto, or for some sort of consequence. There’s an intriguing idea at the center of this about how the mind can spin stories in order to stay alive, but the novel lacks the devious, provocative fun of Moshfegh’s other work, and is messy enough to make readers wonder what exactly to make of it.