Book Review // Hex

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◐ Book Name: Hex (2022)
◐ Author: Jenni Fagan
◐ Genre: Historical Fantasy
◐ Pages: 104

◐ Synopsis (Goodreads):

On this, the last night of her life, in a prison cell several floors below Edinburgh’s High Street, convicted witch Geillis Duncan receives a mysterious visitor – Iris, who says she comes from a future where women are still persecuted for who they are and what they believe.

As the hours pass and dawn approaches, Geillis recounts the circumstances of her arrest, brutal torture, confession and trial, while Iris offers support, solace – and the tantalising prospect of escape.

Hex is a visceral depiction of what happens when a society is consumed by fear and superstition, exploring how the terrible force of a king’s violent crusade against ordinary women can still be felt, right up to the present day.

Recommended for those who enjoy an unconventional story structure, heavy-handed social commentary wrapped in beautiful prose

Content Warning:
rape, torture, public execution

◐ Review: 4/5 ⭐

I love books that emotionally destroy me. This is one of those books.

Hex is not so much a novel as a literary work of art. There isn’t much of a plot. It takes place over 24 hours, and is primarily a series of monologues on the treatment of women over the centuries. The book only features two characters: Geillis, the convicted witch, and Iris, a spirit that comes from the future. Together, they dialogue about what it’s like to be a woman in a world built for men.

The strongest aspect of the book is the relationship between the two characters. As Geillis reflects on her life and the torture she underwent in prison, a vein of desperation grows in both of them—at the futility of Geillis’ situation and the hopelessness of change in the future. The strength of their bond resonated with me.

What I didn’t enjoy so much was the heavy-handed social commentary. The short book read like a feminist treatise wrapped up in purple prose for most of it. Normally I would stop reading a book that preaches at me so blatantly, but the writing was too lovely to stop.

Ultimately, I’m glad I finished it.

With each passing hour, Geillis and Iris know that Geillis’ death is approaching, even as their relationship deepens along with that time. It’s a cruel irony. It’s uncertain where Iris comes from or how she made her way to Geillis’ cell, but either way, she provides some comfort to the doomed girl in the hours before her death.

If you know the history of Geillis Duncan, you already know the story’s tragic conclusion. However, the writing is so wistful, so full of longing, that you desperately wish a different ending for this girl.

By the time Geillis walks out of the prison toward her death, I wanted to close the book; I couldn’t bear the horrible injustice of her situation. The ending was heartbreaking.

The sad reality is that we’re not so removed from that time as we’d like to think, which is something the author says over and over (more poetically). She writes Geillis from a first-person POV, and Iris from second-person. The two women are essentially stand-ins for all women in a sense, so the book reads like both a biography and a letter from a friend. It makes for an incredibly intimate and personal reading.

In a world where women are still being victimised and silenced, Jenni Fagan wrote such a deep friendship between two of them, and voiced what many of us go through so beautifully.

That said, it’s not for everyone, especially if you’re looking for something more plot-driven or exciting.

↠ Get your copy of Hex ↞
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The purest light attracts the most impenetrable darkness.

Some people might think it is not possible to so desperately miss someone you do not yet know, or a home you have never had, but I do. I have done so my whole life. I miss people I have never met. Mourn them. Even more than those who have already, one by one, been taken from me.

A woman’s voice is a hex. She must learn to exalt men always. If she doesn’t do that, then she is a threat.

There is no man on this earth who didn’t get here except by a woman parting her thighs! We are portals.

Bring upon a woman only shame. Make sure there is nothing she can say that could be taken as truth! Take the only thing she owns – her voice, her mind. Take it. Grind it into something pestilent. Line her up as dust and imbibe. What a way to get high! Absorb her. Destroy what brought you here. Power is not something women are allowed to own easily or – often – at all, let alone learn to wield.

Girls learn to shine in secret. We learn there are many reasons not to draw the eyes of men towards us; and if we do, there can be no gain in it. We dip our head first. We are meant to not raise our gaze, and that has been bored into us for centuries. We are meant to never let a look appear too direct. Don’t be confrontational. Play nice – so nobody kills you.

A storm arrives at the exact second when a girl learns she’ll never be free.

I feel oddly me today. As if I have come into my fullness. Maybe that’s how we all leave in the end.

I have never called directly to another like this across the ether, or maybe you did to me, or maybe we did to each other, but there are many seas and wars and decades and inventions and laws and deaths between us.

Silence is complicity. Non-action is a form of approval. I will not be passive.

To bear witness means to risk your life. Otherwise what is it worth for those who have to die? We all come out of darkness.

Follow Jenni Fagan

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