In her sophomore novel, Hex, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight delivers a thesis on love and poison as if they are one and the same. Amidst the cataclysm of Nell Barber’s expulsion from her graduate level biology program, Nell is determined to continue her research and keeps meticulous notes. This research has been unconventional lately, because she’s studying deadly poisonous plants in her apartment, not a laboratory. And her notebooks are filled more with obsessive devotions directed at Professor Joan Kallas than with progress on her antidotes.
Nell’s graduate program was cancelled when her fellow student researcher died from exposure to a deadly toxin, so perhaps Nell hasn’t done anything wrong to deserve expulsion, but it’s been difficult lately to do anything right, either. She has only ever understood herself as a student and—perhaps equally and simultaneously—as someone entirely devoted to Joan. Nell literally spends much of her time wandering around campus waiting to find a way back in—waiting for Joan to offer a solution, or even just for someone to drop their library entrance pass so Nell can swipe in.
We swirl through Nell’s thoughts and while sometimes strange, they feel intricately tied to the way many of us have experienced a love that is so overpowering and unattainable it seems to swallow us whole. “What is it that I want from you?” Nell asks of Joan, within the privacy of her own notebook. “Do I want to press the corner of your mouth into your mouth? Do I want to hold the back of your neck as if you’d been injured? Do I want to steam up your eyeballs with my breath? How long until I am the recipient of my own discoveries and not their messenger? I deliver everything I am to you.”
The working minds of Knight’s characters are simultaneously so precise that they feel scientific and so familiar to one’s own life experience that they feel magical. Nell is seemingly distracted at times but is actually astoundingly and delightfully perceptive, and she reveals the complex truths of this story deftly and easily.
Spinning through Nell’s life are her ex-boyfriend, Tom; her best friend, Mishti; Mishti’s mediocre boyfriend, Carlo; Joan’s bumbling husband, Barry; and still, everlastingly, Joan herself. With this small, powerful cast, Hex reels you in slowly, with easy introductions to the landscape of these characters’ relationships. But we soon learn that Nell isn’t the only one who is distressed amidst this academic upheaval, and Nell’s own aimless dismay sets in motion everyone else’s pent-up feelings.
While Nell has been removed from her research and is barred from the object of her affections, everyone else also seems to face a great emptiness in their lives. As they try to use one another to fill this emptiness, they begin to hurt one another in a tangle of chaotic affairs.
Nell’s collection of poisonous plants grows as Tom becomes stupidly involved with Joan, as Mishti becomes cunningly involved with Barry, and as Nell grows lonelier in her wanting. Still, Nell finds a degree of nihilistic value in this exercise: “if there’s a pillar in your life, it’s worth removing it. Break down your life and see what broke.”
Nell always knew her love for Joan would be unrequited; it was essentially unreachable by design. And yet somehow it persists—it’s a love that is so strong Nell doesn’t understand it. It goes beyond her control.
Rachel, Nell’s former (now dead) research partner, is a known casualty of something uncontrollable. We see the harm it can do, and Nell’s underlying guilt and grief for Rachel run parallel to the turmoil Nell feels in her fixation with Joan.
Thus, Nell’s fascination with poisons and antidotes starts to make sense to us—it’s a toxic violence that can be undone. “I’m building, if you’ll help me, a new aconite that accepts its own opposite. Think of it as me and you alone together,” Nell writes, connecting the dots. “A poison that undoes itself.”
This idea validates Nell’s constant tension between wanting to see fire burning and knowing it is harmful. She even compares the antidote she is trying to create, rather sweetly, to a “tiny botanical firefighter.” If one can put out the fire before it does damage, then all one is left with is that beautiful warm glow.
Nell knows that there are some poisons we can pull goodness out of. “I don’t understand how it occurred to humans to cook the inedible into the edible. Why we peel the mango. Why daffodils go on the vase and not the plate, why aloe is softened into a goo, where we found as a species the courage to say this bad thing can be made good again, can be made, furthermore, delicious!” She is a student through and through, determined to examine her heart from every angle before giving up on it. “It’s a courtship of the sinister.”
Nell fears her own desire sometimes—“What if you’re wrong about what you think you want?” But she also knows that there is a difference between the answer to this question and the question itself being wrong. Nell never apologizes for her wanting, never regrets it. The wanting itself isn’t evil—this love might be poison, but poison is biology; it’s a part of life.
Hex is a book for those who feel adrift and solitary, for those who feel overwhelmed by themselves. Ultimately, it’s a story about harnessing what is out of control—and learning that perhaps the only way to control a poisonous thing is to first embrace it.
By Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
Published March 31, 2020