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.

Book Review: Freshwater

Black lives matter. Black voices matter. Black stories matter. Freshwater is the first book that I read for my black lit challenge, which is a lifelong commitment to listen to and amplify black voices in literature. Freshwater tells the story of a volatile Nigerian woman, Ada, who is trying to make sense of her multiple personalities. After a traumatic experience in college, two of Ada’s personalities materialize and become more dominant, leading Ada to get lost in her mind and make increasingly risky decisions.

The book: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

It’s hard for me to review Freshwater because it was such a unique reading experience that nothing I say could possibly do it justice. The first part of the novel is told from the perspective of Nigerian ogbanje, or the spirits in Ada’s mind that cause her pain and grief. After Ada experiences a major trauma in college, two of these spirits materialize in Ada’s mind, and become distinct personalities that she calls Asughara and Saint Vincent. The remainder of the novel is mostly told from the perspective of Asughara. I absolutely loved this narrative style, because it resulted in a very nuanced, layered story. Every event that Ada experienced could be viewed from the perspective of Igbo folklore in which spirits manipulate the physical world, and through the lens of Western psychology in which one’s sense of self can fracture in response to trauma.

In addition to being wonderfully nuanced, Freshwater is beautifully written. Emezi’s prose is powerful, lyrical, and engrossing. It is also quite introspective, which results in Ada being portrayed in an immensely compassionate light. Sometimes it’s hard to empathize with characters who behave in startling and self-destructive ways, but Ada’s psyche is explored so deeply that it’s impossible to feel anything but compassion for her – all of her behavior makes sense in light of her complex psychological underpinnings.

This is a short review, but I don’t have much more to say about Freshwater. The combination of Igbo folklore with psychological introspection was so beautiful and fresh, resulting in one of the most striking and captivating novels I’ve ever read. I highly recommend this book, and can’t wait to read more of Emezi’s works.

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa

In the year 2000, 15-year-old Vanessa Wye has an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, at a prestigious boarding school in Maine. In 2017, Strane is accused of sexual abuse by another student, who reaches out to Vanessa in hopes of uncovering the scale of Strane’s abuse. But Vanessa doesn’t believe she was ever abused – she views her relationship with Strane as a love story, and still keeps in contact with him seventeen years after their affair. As abuse allegations surface on social media and make news headlines, Vanessa is forced to revisit her teenage years and reconsider the relationship from a new perspective.

The book: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

My Dark Vanessa is deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, yet so captivating. The chapters alternate between Vanessa’s high school and college years in the early 2000’s, and her adult life in 2017 when the abuse allegations against Strane come out. The alternating timelines work really well here, because they show not only how Strane manipulated Vanessa as a high-schooler, but also how that manipulation has shaped Vanessa’s entire self-concept and still affects her seventeen years later.

The character development in this novel was incredibly nuanced: Vanessa is complicated, frustrating, heartbreaking and painfully believable. Through Vanessa’s character, author Kate Elizabeth Russell effectively shows the complex effects of surviving covert abuse, and how particularly insidious abusers can manipulate their victims into believing they are willing participants in an abusive relationship. Russell also shows glimpses of how abuse survivors unwittingly perpetuate the cycle of abuse: because Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to be a victim of abuse, she does not empathize with other women who identify as victims, and even blames other women for letting themselves get involved with predators. In real life, I would find somebody like Vanessa incredibly frustrating, but getting to know her character in this novel, I felt so much heartbreak and tenderness for this woman who was groomed to perceive the world in a truly flawed way.

Something else that stood out to me in My Dark Vanessa was the dynamic between Vanessa and her parents. While I certainly wouldn’t consider Vanessa’s parents to be abusive, they do neglect Vanessa and fail to support her emotionally, which makes her melancholy and lonely even before Strane begins his affair with her. It is no coincidence that Strane singles out the loneliest student, one who might be used to having her needs neglected. Abusers specifically target people that they think will make easy victims, and Russell does a great job illustrating this.

I adored My Dark Vanessa, and would recommend it with the caveat that the scenes between Strane and Vanessa can be pretty difficult to stomach. This novel was such an enthralling read, and I loved the way it portrayed the healing process in a realistically complex yet compassionate way.

Book Review: How We Disappeared

Alternating between timelines in 1942 and 2000, How We Disappeared follows Wang-Di, who is taken from her Singaporean village during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, while Wang-Di is still reckoning with her trauma from the war, 12-year-old Kevin overhears a shocking confession from his grandmother’s deathbed, leading him to uncover secrets about what she lived through during WWII.

The book: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The prose in this novel is absolutely lovely. Lee tells her story in three distinct sections: young Wang Di when she is captured during WWII, old Wang Di trying to overcome the trauma that still haunts her in the year 2000, and Kevin investigating his grandmother’s history in 2000. All three sections are beautifully and convincingly written, with the historical scenes set during WWII especially immersive. There are some passages where Kevin uses language that seems too advanced for his age, but he sees the world in a very curious and childlike way, so he was still believable as a 12-year-old to me.

How We Disappeared isn’t just well-written; it is also written with immense compassion. The horrific details of Wang Di’s sexual slavery are never told more graphically than they need to be, so the book never enters trauma-porn territory. Lee does describe the horrors that the comfort women endured (rape, violence, near-starvation, and unsanitary living conditions, to name a few), but she spends just as much time focusing on the psychological effects and aftermath of sexual slavery. What broke my heart the most wasn’t the violence that the comfort women endured (although it was certainly harrowing), but the stigma and shame that followed them for the rest of their lives after the war.

I also enjoyed the way the various timelines eventually weaved together. Before the connection between Wang Di and Kevin’s stories became clear, the transitions between the two sometimes felt a bit disjointed, but I felt that the slightly discontinuous storytelling was worth it for the way the two stories eventually connected. Also – minor spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read it! – I’m not sure how realistic it was for Kevin to figure out the connection between his story and Wang Di’s, but it was such a satisfying conclusion to the novel that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

All in all, I really enjoyed How We Disappeared. Almost all of my WWII education was focused on Europe and the Holocaust, so it was very eye-opening to read this well-researched and beautifully written story about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. The novel was challenging and heartbreaking at times, but it was absolutely worth the read. I highly recommend this book!