HEX (2020)

RachelSimons is dead.

Rachel was accidentally poisoned by her own hand as part of her botanic poison research and using herself as a test subject. Consequently, her death leads to the dissolution of her research department, including protagonist Nell Barber. Nell becomes obsessed with continuing Rachel’s research, which includes cultivating monkshood and castor beans, while still being infatuated with her mentor Joan, an older, prickly academic married to a bloated, gregarious man named Barry. When Nell isn’t spending her time mooning over her research or Joan, she hangs with her beautiful best friend Misha and shittalks about her gorgeous-but-vapid ex Tom.

In other words: There’s a lot of academic incest going on.

Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s second novel HEX examines the fallout of Rachel’s death with brilliantly inventive prose that ducks and weaves through the lives of five individuals as they all desperately flail around seeking some sort of comfort, if not in their studies, then in each others arms.

It is very tempting to call HEX a botanist version of THE SECRET GARDEN as the two share a lot in common: both circle around a dead body, academia, and a severely dysfunctional group of high-minded adult students and scholars that are absolutely the worst for each other. However, unlike THE SECRET GARDEN, you don’t get the same sense of family camaraderie. From the get-go, there’s an immediate friction between everyone, and there’s a lot of toxic interplay and back-biting.

Initially I balked at writing this recommendation, solely because Dinerstein Knight’s prose is so inventive, so evocative that her words easily trounce whichever words I would utilize to pen this piece. She’s that good, and any attempts on my behalf to try to convey that would be — well, are — middling at best.

However, it’s too good to refrain from recommending as the construction of Nell’s interior thoughts are so delicious, and the tension between their fraught clique is so familiar but also very heightened, and the slow-burn is expertly doled out. It’s a wild ride, and one worth signing up for.

HEX can be purchased via Bookshop.