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Book Review: 'Death In Her Hands' Is A Haunting Whodunnit—And So Much More

I knew I wanted to read Death in Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh’s newest novel, before I knew anything about it. Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation wasone of the best books I read in 2019—a darkly comic novel about a young woman’s extended hibernation with a battery of prescription meds—and I couldn’t wait to see what the author would do next.

This time, she baits us with a powerhouse opening passage: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” An elderly widow named Vesta Gul discovers the cryptic note on the ground while walking her dog through the woods around her home. There’s no body, no blood stain, no tangle of hair caught on course fallen branches, Moshfegh writes. Just a note beneath birch trees, and it sends Vesta spiraling down a rabbit hole of her own imagining.

Death in Her Hands is a haunting whodunnit—and so much more. Shaken at first, our narrator becomes obsessed with the note, devoting herself to exploring the possibilities of who Magda was, who killed her, and why. But amid the Agatha Christie-style mystery is a metaphysical examination of Vesta’s own life, including deep-seeded regret and resentment toward her late husband.

“I could imagine what Walter would say,” the narrator thinks. “‘You aren’t strong enough for this, Vesta dear. Your nerves are too tender. You are like a little bird, you are a sparrow, and you’re trying to be a hawk. You don’t have that kind of spirit. You are just a little thing.’” Through the novel, strange parallels surface between Vesta’s imagination and real life, and we begin to wonder whether she’s unraveling or if there’s truly something sinister going on.

Once again, Moshfegh delivers a dark, surprising, unforgettable character and a story that keeps you guessing through the final page. It was worth the wait, and even better than I’d hoped.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.