Hex
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Hex

Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Nell Barber, an expelled PhD candidate in Biological Science, is exploring the fine line between poison and antidote, working alone to set a speed record for the detoxification of poisonous plants. Her mentor, Dr. Joan Kallas, is the hero of Nell’s heart. Nell frequently finds herself standing in the doorway to Joan’s office despite herself, mesmerised by Joan’s elegance, success, and spiritual force.

Surrounded by Nell’s ex, her best friend, her best friend’s boyfriend, and Joan’s buffoonish husband, the two scientists are tangled together at the centre of a web of illicit relationships, grudges, and obsessions. All six are burdened by desire and ambition, and as they collide on the university campus, their attractions set in motion a domino effect of affairs and heartbreak.

Meanwhile, Nell slowly fills her empty apartment with poisonous plants to study, and she begins to keep a series of notebooks, all dedicated to Joan. She logs her research and how she spends her days, but the notebooks ultimately become a painstaking map of love. In a dazzling and unforgettable voice, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight has written a spellbinding novel of emotional and intellectual intensity.           

Review

The person who believes in you is the most dangerous person you know. The person who believes in you can unbuild you in an instant.

Nell Barber is not having a good year. She’s broken up with her boyfriend, Tom. She’s been expelled from her botany PhD program at Columbia following the laboratory death of one of her colleagues. And, most significantly, she may be losing the interest of Professor Joan Kallas.

Surrounding herself with the poisonous plants responsible for her colleague’s untimely demise, Nell begins to keep a series of journals all addressed to Joan. As Nell’s admiration for the steely professor creeps towards obsession, her journals veer between meticulous research and painstaking confession.

As it turns out, Nell is not the only one struggling to keep boundaries between her professional and personal life. Although the novel takes place in New York City (8.3 million inhabitants and counting) it is strangely insular, if not incestuous in its focus. The cast of characters is small: Nell; her ex, Tom; her best friend, Mishti; Mishti’s boyfriend, Carlo; Joan; and Joan’s husband, Barry. Six people who make up a strange professional, romantic and sexual hexagon with Joan at its centre.

Clever, darkly funny and deliciously witchy, Hex has instantly launched itself up to become one of my top books of the year. It took all of my self-control not to dog ear every page of this book – every line is perfectly crafted. Although the content is completely different, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s use of language and metaphor reminded me of Toni Morrison. Her writing is wholly original and completely devoid of cliché. I really can’t think of a better compliment for a writer. Clocking in at just over two hundred pages, Hex is a quick and compulsively readable character study.


Tristen Brudy works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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