Hex: A Novel

  • Review
By – March 23, 2020

Rebec­ca Din­er­stein Knight’s new nov­el, Hex, is a closed-sys­tem ter­rar­i­um of a book. Con­tained and bewitch­ing, Hex is a love let­ter, a diary, a sci­en­tif­ic study of rela­tion­ships and desire.

The nov­el opens with upheaval: Nell has just bro­ken up with her boyfriend, Tom, moved from the Upper West Side to Red Hook in the far reach­es of Brook­lyn, and a woman in Nell’s lab has died from expo­sure to thal­li­um caus­ing Nell to lose her place at Colum­bia. A PhD can­di­date in biol­o­gy study­ing poi­so­nous plants and their anti­dotes, Nell is now direc­tion­less, far from her friends and dis­con­nect­ed from her men­tor, Joan. She fills three note­books for Joan with a self-reflec­tive, self-effac­ing account of her post-expul­sion life. In her obser­va­tions, she per­son­i­fies her plants and plan­ti­fies her peo­ple in inci­sive descrip­tions of their behav­iors and quirks.

Hav­ing stolen seeds from her now defunct lab, Nell is deter­mined to neu­tral­ize her poi­so­nous plants. She wants to draw out their inner anti-tox­in, search­ing for what she calls a harm/​unharm pair­ing.” And pairs, the way they moti­vate and destroy, dri­ve Nell’s sto­ry. The nov­el begins: I am a woman who wakes up hun­gry. Tom touched only cof­fee till noon,” Nell defined in rela­tion to Tom. Joan and her hus­band Bar­ry, who were part of the com­mit­tee that expelled Nell, define and defy one anoth­er too, as do Mishti — Nell’s gor­geous and charis­mat­ic friend — and Mishti’s boyfriend Car­lo. These three pairs inter­act and react, dis­solve and rearrange, with everyone’s iden­ti­ties clar­i­fied for Nell by their shift­ing rela­tion­ships to one anoth­er. Joan and her rela­tion­ships to oth­ers, in par­tic­u­lar, fas­ci­nate Nell. Joan is cap­ti­vat­ing. Joan is aspi­ra­tional. Joan is tox­ic. Nell is in love.

My biggest loss is you: my chime, my floor­board,” Nell writes to Joan after being expelled. You are my night milk. You are my uni­son.” This con­cise nov­el is filled with these odd­ball turns of phrase and grat­i­fy­ing metaphors. Hexs quotable, pol­ished whim­sy would be tir­ing in the hands of some­one less skilled than Knight, but there’s a lush dark­ness here, and her tight, poet­ic lan­guage bol­sters the novel’s intel­lec­tu­al New York hip­ster cool to become some­thing more ver­dant, more unex­pect­ed. After a tense, charged hol­i­day par­ty, Nell writes to Joan, The night soon end­ed. We found our coats in the pile. Nobody could bear to be in the same room any­more, and we’d eat­en too much cheese and need­ed to use our own bath­rooms.” Sen­tences take star­tling turns, and con­ven­tion is paired with odd­i­ty, style with dirt.

Hex, ten­der and enchant­i­ng, tum­bles to a close, and Nell’s note­books, in which she lists the prop­er­ties of plants along­side the prop­er­ties of peo­ple, ulti­mate­ly suc­ceeds as a cat­a­logue of desire, depen­den­cy, and attrac­tion. No one is an island, Nell’s obser­va­tions show. Or maybe a more apt metaphor would be to say that no one is a plant alone in a tub on the bare floor of your emp­ty Red Hook apartment.

Discussion Questions