How did people go on with their lives as though death weren’t all around them?
After reading Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh, I decided that if I had to host one of those ‘choose five guests’ dinner parties, Ottessa would be on the list. She’s so weird. She’d probably make me a little nervous as a host… But I also reckon she’d have a ripping sense of humour.
Death in Her Hands is the story of a woman, Vesta, who comes across a note on her forest walk. The note suggests there has been a murder, but there’s no body and the details are ambiguous. The entire novel is written as Vesta’s stream-of-conscious thinking about the murder, her community, her marriage to a man named Walter, and her dog, Charlie.
Although I began to tire a little of Vesta’s voice, there were elements of this book that I greatly admired. Firstly, that Moshfegh was able to sustain Vesta’s voice – it never wavers, and the move from one thought to the next is seamless.
Life was persistent. There it was, every day. Each morning it woke me up. It was loud and brash. A bully. A lounge singer in a garish sequin dress. A runaway truck. A jackhammer. A brush fire. A canker sore. Death was different. It was tender, a mystery.
Secondly, the structure of this book is very clever. Vesta is determined to solve the murder mystery, and to do this Moshfegh uses classic whodunit tropes. But the wizardry is that it’s happening at two levels – Vesta’s ‘detective work’, and then at the broader level, another story line is revealed to the reader about Vesta’s past – Vesta doesn’t ‘see’ it because she’s living it. I’ve made it sound complex but it isn’t.
There is nothing more heartbreaking than a squandered opportunity, a missed chance. I knew about stuff like that. I’d been young once. So many dreams had been dashed. But I dashed them myself. I wanted to be safe, whole, have a future of certainty. One makes mistakes when there is confusion between having a future at all and having the future one wants.
Lastly, and linked to the use of tropes at two levels, is the reveal of the true villain. I’m anti-spoilers so will say no more.
A little lying never hurt anybody. It kept the bounds of what one person was distinct from what another person was.
Vesta cooks the same meal for herself and her dog, Charlie (so everything has to be soft and white). She makes him chicken and rice soup.