Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Hex - Jenni Fagan

I'm getting out of sync with everything - not helped by a long night waiting for an engineer to turn up and turn off a fire alarm yesterday. It went off at 9.30pm, finally got to bed around 12.45am and I've been a grumpy mess all day on the back of it and a relatively sleepless night.

'Hex' is the last book I finished (over lunch yesterday), somewhere buried on my desk are a couple of others that I really should be writing about first, but that's all going to have to wait for my next day off and a proper tidy. 

Meanwhile 'Hex' was such a blisteringly good read it probably makes sense to write about it now whilst it's so fresh in my mind. It's the second of Polygon's Darkland series. Each book will take a defining episode from Scottish history - the first one was Denise Mina's 'Rizzio' which I read over the weekend and was also amazing (probably the next post), and sets a contemporary author loose on it. The first 2 are novella length which I assume will be the blueprint for the series and both deal with well-known but maybe not universally known moments.

'Hex' is set the night before the execution of Geillis Duncan for witchcraft on the 4th of December 1591. Geillis Duncan was unlucky, a teenage girl caught up in James VI's witch-hunting paranoia. Accused by her employer, David Seaton, she was tortured by him until she accused as many as 60 others. This kicked off the North Berwick witch trials, but these are also attitudes that the puritans transported to America and which go a long way to explaining the Salem witch trials too. 

Seaton's suspicions seem to have been based on Geillis Duncan's skill as a healer, and I share every bit of Jenni Fagan's anger about the way she, and the other accused women were treated. It honestly feels like it's scorching the page sometimes. Geillis tried to retract her confession and accusations before her execution, explaining that they were solely the result of the torture she endured. All of this is covered in 'Hex' which is framed as a conversation between Geillis and a woman called Iris who's (kind of) traveled through time from 2021 to see her through her last night.

'Hex' outlines the facts we know about Geillis, draws parallels with how women are still being treated (contemporary murders are referenced) and why. I'm aware that I'm doing a really bad job of explaining all this, but it's an immensely powerful, poetic, hopeful, and anger-inducing 100 pages that I can't recommend highly enough - although maybe best not read when you're feeling particularly fragile.

I knew a little bit about the North Berwick trials before I started reading, I've looked up a lot more since which must be at least part of the point of this series which really is shaping up to be remarkable. It would be easy to further sensationalise a story like this, but Fagan's handling is perfect The horror is there but with much more besides, so what we get is part fiction, part manifesto, and entirely a call to arms. 

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