Jenni Fagan’s Hex is the second in Polygon’s Darkland Tales series in which contemporary Scottish writers recreate a moment in Scottish history. The first was Denise Mina’s Rizzio which focused on the night when Mary, Queen of Scots’, secretary was murdered by Scots nobles. Fagan turns her attention to Geillis Duncan, perhaps hoping to offer a different fictional version to that seen in Outlander, though, like Rizzio, Geillis is an important historical figure. Geillis was only a teenager (she is fifteen in the novella) when she was accused of witchcraft by her master, David Seaton, an accusation at least partly based on her knowledge of healing. She was tortured at length and eventually implicated other women in what became known as the North Berwick Witch Trials, before being finally executed on the 4th of December 1591.

An important part of the writer’s task, as with any historical novelist, is to make the narrative as much about the present as the past. Mina did this largely through the language used to present the characters’ dialogue and thoughts – a casual glance at a random page reveals: “fobbed off”; “fancy that”; “doesn’t feel right”; “snobby, surly little shit”. There are occasional missteps, for example when she makes a point of describing the nobles rather redundantly as “white men,” but the general effect is to make the characters accessible to a modern reader. Fagan has taken a different approach by introducing a contemporary voice into the narrative, that of Iris, who reaches Geillis from 2021 through the ‘Null’ as a spirit:

“Travelled time all my life.

“Have had spirits come to me, go through me, had them drag me out of my body and throw me across rooms or ceilings all night long.”

It’s an interesting choice as the familiarity (and she describes herself as Geillis’ familiar at points) of Irene as a contemporary character contrasts with the disbelief the reader needs to suspend to accept her supernatural presence. It also contradicts the commonly expressed argument that witches are innocent because witchcraft does not exist – this, I think, is deliberate as in Fagan’s eyes the more important point is that Geillis has done no harm. As narrative device, however, it works well, introducing us to Geillis’ existence as a prisoner in Edinburgh:

“Your cell is several floors below the city… It is so far below the seasons they might well not exist. There is only one kind of weather in here: freezing cold and cloaked in darkness.”

Iris allows a dialogue to take place with the isolated Geillis, granting a character who has been historically voiceless a voice (part of Geillis’ story is that she recanted as she was led to the gallows but was ignored). Iris claims they are “related by blood – though it wasn’t by marriage, I know that much” providing her with comradeship and comfort to balance her bleak story; it not only suggests that we, in the present, care, but that Geillis can know this. The excruciating descriptions of her torture become a testament:

“They wrapped a rope around my head, wrapped it tighter and tighter to crush my skull… I felt my own bones crunch. Blood leaked out of my ears. They held my legs open wide. Rammed things inside me.”

The cruelty is extraordinary – at one point there are ten men around her – but no worse than we hear of today. She sees the hatred of men:

“There is no man on this earth who didn’t get here except by a woman parting her thighs! We are portals. Humans emerge from our bodies into a world without explanation. Some men hold a brutal kind of grudge for that.”

She also understands the more calculated hatred of Seaton – “a man made almost entirely of hate” – who uses her to accuse others of a higher station:

“He could not go after her directly, being of nobility as she is a of money… He could not have his motive – to try to get his hands on her inheritance – as something that linked him to her death.”

Fagan’s prose could not be more suited to her subject – at times stripped back, at others almost incantatory. These short books remind me of Canongate’s Myths series in that by giving writers a particular brief it allows them a certain freedom. Hex feels like an offshoot of Luckenbooth, giving Fagan has the opportunity of exploring an even darker side to Edinburgh in this accomplished if harrowing tale.

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2 Responses to “Hex”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds intriguing, if potentially difficult because of the somewhat harrowing content.

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