Ottessa Moshfegh’s upcoming novel, Death in Her Hands, has been on countless “Most Anticipated Books of 2020” lists. Intrigued by the author’s reputation and the (campaigned) subject matter of the novel as a thriller, I opened up my advanced reader copy on the plane, not at all knowing what world I was about to step into.
The first page: a woman innocently stumbles upon a note that seems anything but innocent while walking her dog in the woods. It reads: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But, alas, no body accompanies the suspicious scrap of paper. This is the first ingenious move Moshfegh makes: you, along with the protagonist, immediately begin to wonder what this note could mean, the motivation of the author of the note, and the state of the subject of the note. Then, instantly, you scrutinize the person telling you all this information – the protagonist. It exudes distrust from the opening paragraph, and you are left with that feeling for the remainder of the book, like opening your windows to see a bright orange sky in the middle of the night. Something just doesn’t sit right.
Months after turning the book’s final pages, I still find myself shaking my head as I think about it. This novel is relentlessly unnerving and, at times, even annoying. But, wait! Move your mouse from the “x” in the corner of this browser window. I don’t mean to dissuade you from endeavoring to read this book. In fact, I’ve actually enjoyed what this reading experience has done for me. But before you dive right in, I think it may help for me to relay my take on Moshfegh’s approach to writing. (At least, I think this would have helped my experience reading the book.)
I find this text somehow both claustrophobic and liberating. That is all due to Moshfegh’s particular style. If this novel was written even slightly differently, I would have thrown it across the room (and, still, there were moments where I felt so inclined – though that was predominately due to the extreme unlikability of the protagonist). Her writing spirals, rambles, and often feels confused or trapped, but it is because her protagonist is rambling, easily distracted, and alone. Further, the novel is set in a small neighborhood, where the (widowed) protagonist lives in a secluded house in the woods. Moshfegh births unique, chaotic characters so well that to center and ground them, her writing remains undoubtably clear. There is precision and intention in every single word placement. When the narrative, protagonist, or any other story element becomes “annoying,” this is no accident.
While I cannot speak for the writer herself, to me, Moshfegh writes to unsettle – upset, even – and to experiment. She does not seem interested in pleasing readers; rather, she seems dedicated to completely unpacking a character until that character is so transparent the reader understands her as much as the writer. For instance, the protagonist in Death in Her Hands is so in her head that the book’s suspense reaches its heights when she interacts with other human beings. Moshfegh exercises in character studies, particularly in terms of the forces that push and pull us toward self-preservation or self-destruction – and how closely those two modes circle each other, eventually destined to collide. It is a slow burn that will leave you gaping and staring incredulously at nothing as the book closes in your lap. And that’s exactly what Moshfegh wants.
If you’re a writer, I especially urge you to read this book. Part of why I felt it was freeing to read was because, as a writer, I was shown that I could break the rules, just as Moshfegh does in this novel. She liberates our sense of control as good and chaos as bad, and welcomes both warmly to play with. If you’re a fan of discomfort and unease, I also suggest you read it. While thriller is not a genre I often jump to, Moshfegh defies how we ought to define genre categories in this suspenseful narrative.
Initially set to publish in April, and then pushed back, this one now comes out in nine days, on the 23rd of June, 2020.