One day, an 72 year old widow named Vesta Gul is taking her daily walk in the forest with her dog, Charlie. And comes across a chilling note, weighed down with smooth black stones. It says “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body”.
This leads to an investigation, a meditation on life and death, and the realisation that her marriage was not what it seemed.
“I felt I needed to hide a little. My mind needed a smaller world to roam.”
Death in Her Hands is set in a rural mountain town called Levant. Vesta lives in a run down cabin by a lake, with a rowing boat and rotted jetty. The town has a gas station / bait shop, and the nearby, slightly bigger township barely features a supermarket and a library.
There’s a particular, semi rural mountain town Americana feel to the book. I’ve seen it in the Philip K Dick book, Cosmic Puppets; the video games Life is Strange and State of Decay, in the TV show Twin Peaks, (which, inexplicably, I still haven’t watched). A stunning landscape marred by poverty, quiet desperation and the ever present spectre of drug addiction.
“ I had to let him outshine me, to keep the peace.”
Over the course of the novel, little facts about her husband slip out. It becomes clear that their marriage was not a happy one. Walter was a handsome, German professor of epistemology. He was also an inveterate snob; he considered most people, including Vesta, his intellectual inferiors. He mocked her looks and prevented her from making social connections. At one point she muses that a man that handsome would have to be truly appalling to have no friends.
Sexually, Walter was very obviously cheating on her, with a physical list of paramours; exclusively younger and exploitable women. He did not want children but banned her from using birth control. Vesta also expresses anti-abortion views at several points in the book.
He was a German scientist who hates hearing about the war. It is left ambiguous whether he is a traumatised Jewish refugee, or a war criminal with a guilty conscience. In disliking him, I found I preferred the latter explanation.
“There is nothing more heartbreaking than a squandered opportunity, a missed chance.”
After discovering the note, Vesta creates a backstory for Magda, via creative writing worksheets found on Ask Jeeves. The backstory she fabricates is eerily specific; a Belarusian runaway, working as a home aide, being sexually exploited by the son of her charge. She imagines the girl as living in the basement of a local widow, with an American teen called Blake mooning over her, and a real boyfriend. She pictures Magda as attractive but not beautiful; a striking girl with dark hair and eyes, with chipped black polish and a taste for cheap cigarettes (the Rachel Amber vibes were clear).
At first, I wondered if this were a convoluted way of telling Vesta’s own life story. The abusive lover she creates for Magda bears a striking resemblance to Walter, and she hints at a personal background of European poverty. I also wondered whether Magda was a real girl killed by either Walter – with his serial killeresque list of girls’ names – or by Vesta herself as misguided revenge against Walter’s many infidelities.
Especially given that she specifically likens Walter to Harrison Ford – who in What Lies Beneath, played Dr. Norman Spencer, a professor who murders a student he had had an affair with… by drowning her in a lake.
In the End
“How nice it was, to do what I want.”
Toward the climax of the novel, Vesta becomes more obsessed. She begins slotting the local townspeople into her murder mystery, and neglecting her beloved dog. Eventually she comes home to find he has escaped from her cabin. This event, and her agonised hunt for him in the dark, crystallises the hints that Vesta’s sanity may be fraying.
Throughout the book it is hinted that Vesta, like Moshfegh’s other protagonist Eileen, has a pervasive eating disorder. She barely eats, at one point consuming nothing but two bagels and a handful of chicken in a day. She feels visceral disgust at her overweight neighbours. At one point she drinks a protein shake, musing that Walter would have made her eat “like a grown up”. Her drinking, often on a mostly empty stomach, escalates from a single glass a day to a bottle or more.
Vesta is taking Boniva, a drug commonly used for osteoporosis. Boniva is also used to prevent fractures in those with cancer. My theory is that Vesta had been experiencing lapses of consciousness. Anorexia, chemotherapy and alcohol abuse can all cause memory loss. I think Vesta wrote the original note herself, and that Charlie attacks at the end of the book because she had abused him while blacked out.
At the end, she is forced to confront the flaws in her marriage, and comes home to a cabin in disarray and hints that nothing had been as it seemed.
I would recommend, although it was surreal and slow to start. 3/5.