By Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
Nell Barber is an expelled biology Ph.D. candidate. Her alma mater, Columbia, banished all six members of her lab group after their work on the detoxification of poisonous plants proved fatal. Rootless, looking to bloom and so earn the admiration of her former adviser Prof. Joan Kallas, Nell steals the lab’s poisonous seeds and plants them in her own apartment in outer Red Hook, Brooklyn. Waiting to begin her self-guided study into botanical toxins, Nell begins writing a personal account of her abject situation, her romantic and toxic obsessions, addressed as an invocation to their true source: Joan.
Ten years Nell’s senior, Joan has an austere elegance that’s enough to make an awkward, unsophisticated loner from Kansas fall dangerously in love — the performative, medieval variety that sustains itself precisely because it’s unrequited. “You’re susceptible first to idolatry,” Nell writes, “then to study, to apprenticeship, and finally to a kind of patient love that makes fun of itself and believes in itself without limit.” Also jousting for a position within Joan’s court are: Tom, Nell’s unicorn-obsessed ex; her best friend, Mishti, and Mishti’s boyfriend, Carlo; and Joan’s husband, Barry, who has imprisoned her in his tower on Manhattan’s upscale Riverside Drive.
I came to “Hex,” Knight’s second novel, not knowing her previous work: the poetry collection “Lofoten” and her debut novel, “The Sunlit Night,” now a Sundance film. Meeting the novel on its own terms, then, without expectation, I struggled to gauge what exactly those terms were. There’s much that appears self-serious, even as it relishes the twee and bathetic. Nell might argue that, like a poison and its antidote, such opposites can be more alike than they are different; but it would take a better book than “Hex” to prove it.
As it is, the book’s wisest moments read like fortune cookies. The devotional format strains to contain a high volume of bit-part back stories and anecdotal asides that Nell, “born observant,” records in lieu of scientific data. “My name is Nell Barber,” she announces on the first page, as Joan hardly needs reminding. The contrivance might fit the novel’s theme of courtly love, but it’s hard to buy the premise of Nell as a gauche and pining scientist.