Five years ago I reviewed The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein, as she was known then, describing it as ‘a quirky bit of escapism’. You can see why, given our current predicament, I was keen to read Hex hoping for something similar. Garlanded with praise from the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer and Emma Straub, covering quite a literary gamut, Knight’s new novel takes the form of three notebooks written over six months by Nell Barber addressed to her advisor, Dr Joan Kallas.
After one of her peers accidentally kills herself while studying toxins in the lab they share at New York’s Columbia University, Nell abandons her own studies, stealing two of Rachel’s poisonous plants, determined to discover their antidote. She and her colleagues have been expelled from the university but Nell continues her illicit study, visiting Joan who is not only her advisor but the object of her passion. Nell has recently split with the beautiful but vacuous Tom. She gossips with her lovely best friend Mishti, following the progress of Mishti’s love affair with Carlo whose sights are set on becoming rich, while spying on Joan’s philandering husband Barry. As the autumn term progresses, these six characters become ever more entangled with each other, some more than others, as love and desire take centre stage until things come to a head at Joan’s Christmas party.
Hex has the same idiosyncratic, slightly other worldly style that I remember from The Sunlit Night. Nell is an eccentric narrator, consumed with a passion for Joan which, for some time, she doesn’t entirely understand. Delivered in short chapters, her narrative is punctuated by botanical pen portraits as she devotes herself to finding a way to neutralise the toxins that killed the woman she wishes she could have saved. There’s pleasing thread of humour running through Knight’s novel, witty with a few farcical moments as relationships between the six main players become ever more convoluted. Although it’s entirely different, Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors popped into my head several times. Must be all those botanicals.
Bloomsbury Circus: London 9781526611406 215 pages Hardback Ebook