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.'