‘A Better Place’ by Ottessa Moshfegh
Read it here in less than an hour.
Thinking about why it’s unsettling…
In the first paragraph, our narrator, Urszula, says she’s not from Earth, but from ‘some other place’. This is a young girl speaking, as indicated by the childish tone, the vocabulary (‘silly people’), and her inability to articulate her ideas because she’s unsure of the details (her brother is in charge of the fantasy: ‘Waldemar says…’). Lots of children have overactive imaginations, and band together to create fantasies; so far, so normal. Then, she asks her brother ‘How do we get back to the place, to the thing, whatever?’; his response is a casual ‘Oh, you have to die. Or you have to kill the right person.’ – oh, ok; not normal after all. The idea of killing, or dying, is then repeated throughout the story by the two children.
It transpires that the siblings have been talking about this ‘other place’ for a long time. Waldemar seems aware it’s just a twisted fantasy, as he makes excuses as to why he hasn’t killed anyone yet – it might be the wrong person, he’d go to prison, he’d miss his sister if he went to prison or to the other place without her… Urszula, meanwhile, takes it more seriously, such as frequently crying because she so desperately wants to go there, which prompts Waldemar to offer to kill her.
Urszula refers to their mother only as ‘the woman’; this suggests extreme dislike for, and detachment from, her – we see the mother through Urszula’s eyes, which means the woman appears to favour her son; it adds a further disturbing layer of meaning to paint the mother as an evil stepmother, or even a witch, in this fairy tale of a story, but although the mother is harsh she does worry at the end of the story that Urszula is unwell, so tells her to stay at home, and gives her an onion in case she develops a cough. Again, we can see Waldemar’s attitude is not the same as his sister’s, as he calls the woman ‘mother’, and says she’s not the person he’s meant to kill. Our narrator is less sure, saying ‘I wish that the woman would be my person to kill.’
The name ‘Jarek Jaskolka’ comes to Urszula (‘It is just a name I’ve made up, but it is the right name, that I am sure of’), and she decides he’s the one who needs to die so she can return to the other place. When she says the name to her mother, her scared reaction and comment that ‘Many girls came away from his house black and blue and bloodied’ tell the reader this man is a child abuser. Previously, the danger was from Urszula, now it’s directed at her, and a new layer of concern is added; she is, after all, a child, so do we believe she could really mean to kill someone?
Perhaps Urszula is aware, on some level, of what Jarek Jaskolka did to her mother when she was a child; certainly, Urszula says her mother refers to her deceased father as being ‘in a better place than this’, which shows her ideas have come from somewhere real and painful.
Urszula goes to great lengths to enact her plan, finding the man’s house, collecting poisoned berries (or are they just berries that the shared fantasy changes into poisoned?), boiling them into a jam, and getting hold of a butcher’s knife. Waldemar tries to dissuade her, saying she’ll get hurt, telling her to stay home from school, offering to carry her school bag in an attempt to take her weapons away… Though Waldemar previously controlled the fantasy, their roles have flipped, and Urszula narrates ‘I feel I have more courage than Waldemar now. He seems like the sad lost child’; she won’t listen to him anymore, she’s determined to kill.
The story ends with Urszula knocking on Jarek Jaskolka’s front door, and the reader knows that whatever happens next, it will be terrible.