Quarantine got you down? At least you’re not the protagonist of an Ottessa Moshfegh novel. "Death in Her Hands" (Penguin Press, 272 pp., ★★½ out of four) is the author’s latest treatise on malignant isolation, a rambling, close-up psychodrama that explores the mysteries of an unreliable mind.
Vesta Gul is an elderly widow who lives with her dog, Charlie, in a cabin on a lake in a small, snowy town, far away from her old life with her recently deceased husband. Her existence is solitary by choice, but also decidedly lonely: “It had been so long since I’d socialized at all. The winter had been long. And I had no friends, nobody to meet for lunch, to go to the cinema, even to chat to on the phone. I didn’t even have a phone.”
One morning, she discovers a handwritten note in the birch woods, the text of which supplies the book’s opening: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body." She finds no dead body.
There’s a pleasing, incantatory quality to those lines, as well as a clear sense of intrigue, and they serve as a sort of prompt for the novel, sending Vesta into a funhouse of speculation and dark fabulation, layered with the shadows of her own personal demons. 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.
With nothing but the note to go on, Vesta spins out her own story of Magda’s apparent murder, imagining the woman (19, with dark hair) and populating her life with potential suspects (a boy she names Blake, a ghoul she names Ghod). She goes to the library and consults Ask Jeeves – “Is Magda dead?” “How does one solve a mystery?” She finds a webpage with tips for mystery writers and fills out a character profile questionnaire. The internet research and questionnaire account for a full 60 pages of the book.
Moshfegh offers a commentary on writing: “But I supposed it was indeed the job of the writer to belittle the miracles of this Earth, to separate one question out of the infinite mystery of life and answer it in some sniveling way” – a superb sentence; no one can claim she doesn't have talent. But it doesn’t go anywhere, and the whole novel reads like the wandering early stages of the drafting process. And while it borrows and winks at the conventions of the mystery genre – much like Moshfegh’s pungently delicious debut novel, "Eileen" – it fails to make much use of them.
"Death in Her Hands" is a murder mystery without a body, a high-handed spin on genre that lacks both the elegance of a successful literary experiment and the substance of the real thing.