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Old Ladies and Murder Mysteries

An old Eastern European woman living alone in a remote village where people don’t pay any attention to her becomes involved in a murder mystery somehow connected to William Blake’s poetry while at odds with the police, who don’t take her seriously. But enough about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, after 2018’s exceptional My Year of Rest and Relaxation, is called Death In Her Hands and it’s about an old Eastern European woman living alone in a remote village where people don’t pay her any attention, and becomes involved in a murder mystery featuring William Blake’s poetry. 

The book opens with septuagenarian narrator Vesta Gul stumbling upon a note on the ground while walking her dog Charlie: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Except, there is no dead body in sight. What follows is a murder mystery with clues, suspects, and a backstory that unfolds solely in Vesta’s mindspace, as she would call it. And while she looks up online how to solve a mystery and imagines who Magda was and why her life came to this abrupt end, it’s hard to ignore the obvious and in-your-face premise of circumstances that Moshfegh “borrows” from Olga Tokarczuk.

Drive Your Plow in Her Hands

I say “borrows” because I don’t know exactly what this is or is intended to be. From page 5 I started to wonder, why does it feel like Ottessa Moshfegh read Drive Your Plow and decided to write a book that resembles it so much on the surface? Is it only on the surface or does it go deeper? Is this a cover? Is she trying to All-Along-The-Watchtower it? After a William Blake poem – one that includes the line “They stumble all night over bones of the dead” – made its way into the plot of the novel in the third act, it became clear this wasn’t a case of coincidence or cryptomnesia. 

Noticing the superficial similarities between the novels made me, maybe even unwillingly, start listing the differences in my head. Drive Your Plow and its narrator, Janina, have a strong moral message that is delivered through a masterful readaptation of gothic and noir aesthetics and sensibilities. It’s a novel about human behaviour and violence, and one person’s attempt at having her voice heard through a final act of revenge in a murder mystery that takes a back seat.

Vesta Gul lives the most boring life imaginable and this is her moment of excitement. A mystery! She has no major grievance with the world that she wants to broadcast; no revenge to take. As the mystery unfolds in her mind, we get a clearer and clearer picture of her marriage with her deceased husband Walter, and how she is still dealing with a stifling relationship that deprived her of a better life. The mystery is in her head and the rest of the novel is just as esoteric. The world beyond her little cottage in the woods and the nearby lake might as well not exist. The William Blake poem, which was a crucial part in the thematic world of Drive Your Plow and featured heavily throughout, doesn’t even make it to McGuffin status in Death In Her Hands

On Drive Your Plow, Tokarczuk has said that she wanted to write a novel with an old woman as the narrator because she felt this voice was largely missing in literature – a forgotten demographic. Maybe Moshfegh wants to do the same, and is paying tribute to Tokarczuk through these superficial similarities that simply serve as nods to whomever has read Drive Your Plow. Apart from this, I have no answer to any of the questions I had initially about this literary cover. One difference I keep thinking about is how the noir elements of Drive Your Plow allow for a deep and captivating pondering of existential questions by Janina in her old age, while Vesta here is decidedly resistant to that:

© Viktorija Berlickaite

MMM: Meta Murder Mystery

After Vesta finds the note, she conjures up Magda’s life, from coming to the U.S. as a teen and trying to stay with an illegal status, which got her in the mix with all sorts of people who helped but also took advantage of her and eventually one of them killed her. She makes a list of these suspects, and with the help of an online questionnaire for writers to develop their characters, she ends up with a backstory to Magda’s situation and the personalities of the people she was in contact with. She gives everyone names and sets out to solve the mystery, but she is also aware that she is writing this mystery at the same time. Vesta has a meta quality in her narration that is simultaneously parody and earnest sincerity. She almost recognises that she’s in a book: 

Even after she has conjured up the premise and the intrigue of the plot in the first chapters, she reminds us here and there of how aware she is of conventions and literary pacing in her life: “I drove very carefully now on Route 17. I didn’t want Ghod to stop me again. That would only delay the story” (157). But the more she gets into the mystery, the more she reflects inwardly and into her past. Her dead husband Walter is a constant presence in her thoughts. She remembers things he’s said to her, she imagines what he would say to her if he was there, and it becomes more and more present as a voice next to her own. And slowly it starts to make sense. 

She repeats, especially in the beginning, that she loved him and mourned him and thought of throwing his ashes into the lake to honour him, but she opens herself up to feeling what she didn’t allow herself to express during decades of marriage. She becomes violent towards him, even though he’s dead, and resents him for never being kind to her; for allowing him to take centre stage in her life, and she mourns, more than anything, the years that she endured his coldness and his cheating, now that she has little life left to live.

She can’t avoid thinking about existential issues anymore, even though she expresses her disdain for them in the last chapter. This is a woman at the end of her life, who didn’t live as she wanted to and realised it all too late. Beyond the fun mystery and the snide comments and sarcasm, there’s a sharp poignancy to her narrative that pierces through regardless. Almost by her own admission, she invents the murder mystery to avoid thinking about her regrets, and to feel for once some of the excitement that she could’ve had when she was younger but didn’t. 

So, who was Magda, and who killed her?


Been doing this too long.