Book Review: Death in Her Hands

Death in Her Hands is about an elderly widow named Vesta, whose mundane life is disrupted by a note that she finds while walking her dog in the woods. The note says “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Vesta’s curiosity about this note slowly begins to consume her, and she starts spending the majority of her time trying to solve the murder mystery with what limited information she has.

The book: Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

If you’re looking for a fast-paced mystery novel, you won’t find it in Death in Her Hands. Although the novel has some elements of mystery, the real focus of this story is the narrator’s mental and emotional state. Vesta is elderly and lonely, and without much factual information about the mysterious note she found in the woods, she spends most of her time pondering hypothetical situations that could have led to Magda’s death. As she becomes increasingly obsessed with Magda’s death, Vesta’s grip on reality – and therefore the events of the novel as described by Vesta – becomes hazy.

Conceptually, I think what Moshfegh did with Death in Her Hands was clever and interesting. Humans are extremely good at telling stories, and we are especially prone to telling ourselves stories to make sense of situations that don’t have an obvious explanation. When we do this without enough factual information, however, we can get lost in spiraling thoughts that are no longer based on reality. I find the stories that people tell themselves fascinating, and I can appreciate the ideas behind Moshfegh’s detailed exploration of an elderly widow getting lost in her own mind.

While I appreciate what Moshfegh was trying to explore in Death in Her Hands, I didn’t actually enjoy reading it. This 270-page novel takes place over the course of a couple days, and most of that time is spent inside Vesta’s unreliable mind. The combination of slow pacing and an unreliable narrator who may or may not be losing her mind just didn’t work for me – especially since I had expected the book to be more of a mystery than it turned out to be. I kept waiting for the mystery to pick up, but it never really did.

Although Death in Her Hands didn’t work for me, I still recommend checking it out if you were previously interested, or if it sounds interesting to you based on this review. Many of my issues with the book are the result of my own expectations, so if you go into this book knowing that it is not a typical mystery novel, you will likely have a better time with it.

Trigger warnings: fatphobic narrator and an animal abuse scene that I wish I could unread.

Author: Hannah Celeste

Hi! I'm Hannah, a book-blogger from the Northeastern United States. I enjoy reading many genres, cooking and baking, doing yoga, and spending time with my two cats.

20 thoughts on “Book Review: Death in Her Hands”

  1. Our expectations mean a lot and I see what you mean about waiting for the mystery to pick up. 270 pages inside the head of the protagonist seem too much. Having said that; what I enjoyed most about Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby, was the last part spent inside the head of the very disturbed narrator. So perhaps I would enjoy this one as well.

    Hope all is well with the new job, btw.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha it was too much for me, but it does sound like you might like it – especially going in knowing that the mystery won’t quite pick up.

      And thank you! That is so thoughtful and kind! It is going well, but I’ve been struggling to keep up with blogging lately (as you can maybe tell from the two-days late reply haha).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah I was interested to hear your thoughts on this one after our convo about My Year of Rest & Relaxation – it sounds like an interesting premise but I think I might also be frustrated with the pace & being stuck in the (unreliable) protagonist’s head. I think I’ve had enough of reliable narrators for the time being!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes!! I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it as well if you do end up reading it – although I completely understand if you don’t want to read this one lol. Compared to My Year of Rest and Relaxation, this one felt pretty disorienting.

      Like

  3. Ah, too bad it didn’t work for you! I was really looking forward to this one, especially since I was expecting it to be a hybrid mystery/thriller/character study like Moshfegh’s first novel. I might still read it but now at least I know not to expect a mystery! Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ah, great review. This one sounded so good, but it seems like almost everyone’s been disappointed by the execution and/or not getting what they expected based on the synopsis. I haven’t actually read any of Moshfegh’s work yet even though her writing sounds ridiculously my type, so I think I’ll just bump this one down the list and pick up something else from her to start instead. Sorry to see you didn’t enjoy the read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Starting with one of Moshfegh’s other works sounds like a good idea (although you could potentially like this one going in with the right expectations) – Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation were both great!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This book almost sounds like a boring cozy mystery. Person who is not a detective becomes a sleuth — cozy mystery. Rambling around in one person’s head for a few days — boring (to me). Does she even tell the police or anything?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Boring cozy mystery” is a great way to describe this book, but I’m not sure if it’s fair to call it a mystery. The MC doesn’t really become a sleuth, she just obsesses over hypotheticals without doing much detective work. And no, she doesn’t even tell the police! I think the people who liked this novel REALLY liked it…but for me it was a huge miss.

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