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Death in Her Hands Reviews

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Death in Her Hands

Ottessa Moshfegh

3.15 out of 5

13 reviews

Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publication date: 26 May 2020
ISBN: 9781787332201

A triumphant blend of horror, suspense and pitch-black comedy, from the Booker-shortlisted author 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.

3 stars out of 5
9 Oct 2020

"Is it a thriller, a psychological drama or dark comedy? The answer remains unclear"

All characters are made up, but some are more made up than others. Characters who are made up by other characters, in laborious and lengthy fashion, must pass the same or more rigorous test regarding reader interest, whether in a humorous or serious novel. “I hadn’t been bored at all that winter,” Vesta claims. “Boredom hadn’t even occurred to me.” These are the funniest lines in the novel and perhaps a key to how to read Death in Her Hands. But, unfortunately, you can be too good at portraying boredom.

Reviews

3 stars out of 5
6 Oct 2020

"Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘uneven-tempered’ meta-mystery"

Moshfegh’s confidence remains high. All this is done with the withering insight and unforgiving humour we remember from Eileen (TLS, July 22, 2016) and My Year of Rest and Relaxation (TLS, Aug 17, 2018). By page eighty, closeted in this would-be Miss Marple’s rambling inner monologue, we do become a little desperate for actual events. But later, as Vesta’s inventions spiral out of control and cease to be comic – as physical and psychological structures in the fictional world give up their sense and become Lynchian and unnavigable – we are left with the feeling that something more has happened here than a fiction about fiction. As her episteme, already punctured on the first page, loses the last of its air, there is some sense that the two realities – Vesta’s world and the doubly intangible one of her invention – have leaked fatally into one another, and then, further, into ours. There is a sense that all three states of being always shared some metaphysics that, as mystery-solvers, we failed to suspect.

3 stars out of 5
1 Oct 2020

"a story of brooding anxiety that expands on Moshfegh’s writerly obsessions"

‘I’m old, a stranger, an invader, unwelcome, paranoid from days on end of isolation in my cabin,’ admits Vesta. With Death in Her Hands, Moshfegh has written another heady, noirish monologue that explores the effects of seclusion and internalised loathing. Frustratingly slow-moving at times, this is a story of brooding anxiety that expands on Moshfegh’s writerly obsessions.

2 stars out of 5
21 Sep 2020

"A rare disaster from Ottessa Moshfegh"

Perhaps my reaction to Death in Her Hands would not be as strong if I didn’t view it as such a personal disaster. Moshfegh is one of those rare things: a great American writer. To read My Year of Rest and Relaxation for the first time is to burn all your possessions, shave your head, and pledge your soul to the divine Miss M – the Barefoot Ottessa. Therefore, it comes as no easy task to discuss Death in Her Hands. Let me assure you, I am in agony. Every disparaging word is like an arrow through my flesh. St Sebastian, c’est moi.

3 stars out of 5

"Death in Her Hands presents yet another abhorrent character – written with wit and intrigue, and sometimes a little too much knowingness"

Vesta gets carried away with imaginary stories which, in her mind, come to be true. The writer of the note, she decides, is a teenage boy she names Blake, “sneaky and a bit dumb”. She constructs detailed personas for him and his mother, and soon enough everyone she encounters becomes a character in her murder mystery. It is with these contortions of Vesta’s reality that Moshfegh’s knowingness becomes heavy and obvious. The novel tries to play on the “art” of writing a murder mystery – “Mystery was an artless genre,” Vesta thinks – but the attempts at metatextuality feel contrived when the reasons for Vesta’s behaviour are far more complicated.

3 stars out of 5
5 Sep 2020

"In sending up the detective genre, Moshfegh is true to her mischievous persona"

Death in Her Hands was written five years ago, she has said — just after completing her short story collection Homesick for Another World (2017) and before the widely acclaimed My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018). But while both Moshfegh’s short and long fiction usually enthral with her antiheroes’ quirky takes on life, Death in Her Hands is heavy-handed and not nearly as much fun. ‘It’s a rather dark, damning way to begin a story: the pronouncement of a mystery whose investigation is futile,’ Vesta muses. ‘Was futility a subject worthy of exploration...?’ The jury, I’m afraid, is out.

4 stars out of 5
27 Aug 2020

"The protagonist is like a character from an Elizabeth Strout novel, but a more twisted version — Olive Kitteridge Noir"

It’s a clever, dark, funny book about a damaged woman trying to make the best of the final stages of her life and much about it is unpredictable. But while I cared about Vesta, she occasionally feels unbelievable and contrived. Could she really be so naïve? There are sections I wished Moshfegh would expand on — she mentions Walter’s thoughts on Nazis and Hitler but only obliquely. It’s not a traditional murder mystery thriller, rather a gripping story about the human impulse to repress the painful parts of our lives.

3 stars out of 5
24 Aug 2020

"Moshfegh is one of the most original and astute young novelists working today"

If Death in Her Hands is part fever dream, part existential inquiry, Moshfegh is stronger on the first of those. As ever, she creates and sustains a tense, uncanny atmosphere, in a world like ours but not quite; and she wholeheartedly inhabits her narrator, rather than just using her to make a series of metafictional points (a relief). But the book mostly gestures towards the big questions: it feels at once unwieldy and slight. And there’s an aspect of Moshfegh’s writing that’s in danger of turning into a party trick. Her characters have always dealt, bracingly and hilariously, in disgust, but one target feels tired. Here they are again, the poor, the fat, the ugly, with their satellite TVs and McDonald’s addictions, like the punchline of a Ricky Gervais routine from 2009.

4 stars out of 5
Melissa Katsoulis
21 Aug 2020

"Death in Her Hands 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"

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.

4 stars out of 5
Stephanie Cross
20 Aug 2020

"an almost at-a-sitting read"

Spanning just 48 hours, and propelled by the insistency of lonely Vesta’s voice, this is an almost at-a-sitting read that, although muted in comparison to the rest of Moshfegh’s brilliantly macabre and outré oeuvre, nonetheless gets under your skin.

2 stars out of 5
Johanna Thomas-Corr
18 Aug 2020

"When the narrator is constantly asking what the point in anything is,the reader might be inclined to wonder the same thing."

t’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...  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.

2 stars out of 5
Johanna Thomas-Corr
18 Aug 2020

"The US author’s fascination with female outsiders offers diminishing returns in this postmodern mystery of a girl presumed dead"

Occasionally, it appears to be ripening into a portrait of loneliness in old age. There’s a poignant description of the futility of running a bath when Vesta’s body now seems to her “so little, a little thing I had to keep clean, like washing a single dish one uses constantly”. 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.

5 stars out of 5
23 Jun 2020

"“Death in Her Hands” is the work of writer who is, like Henry James or Vladimir Nabokov, touched by both genius and cruelty"

“Death in Her Hands” is the work of writer who is, like Henry James or Vladimir Nabokov, touched by both genius and cruelty. Cruelty, so deplorable in life, is for novelists a seriously underrated virtue. 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.