Hex by Jenni Fagan – Book review

Hex is such an engrossing, powerful and evocative read. Poetic in form, it’s historical fiction, a retelling of the harrowing true story of Geillis Duncan, a 15-year-old girl who was murdered during the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland, on 4th December 1591, 431 years ago today.

Opening sentence: I was out in the Null.

Iris and Geillis

A woman’s voice is a hex. She must learn to exalt men always. If she doesn’t do that, then she is a threat. A demon whore, a witch – so says everyone and the law.

The story takes a metaphorical time-travelling format, with Iris from 2021 transporting herself back to Geillis’ cell in 1591 on the eve of her murder. As the women talk, the ideas of witches and their familiars are discussed; the main, powerful theme is the awful persecution of women. Accusations of witchcraft were all that were needed to silence, punish and kill them.

Lies to punish women

In 1597 King James VI of Scotland (and later England when he succeeded Elizabeth I) published his book, Demonology that detailed his beliefs on magic and witchcraft. The twisted power of this man sent so many women to their death.

A thought plague. How many people in this world will be killed by thought plagues? Those infections spread. They create nothing but fear and death.

You will feel angry reading Hex. Through Geillis’ story – how she is treated – Jenni Fagan shows how women through history have been repressed, persecuted and killed. It’s a never-ending cycle that even now, in 2022 happens in various forms.

Girls learn to shine in secret.

Just so eloquently written, this is an emotional tale that really packs a punch. I always feel that books like this are so important – to remind us that we still have a long way to go for equality between the sexes and to remind us of just how women were treated for so long.

I found the themes of transformation and feminism explored here really interesting. They brought to mind The Harpy by Meghan Hunter – another great book that looks at these ideas.

Hex is part of the Darkland Tales trio of books: ‘In Darkland Tales, the best modern Scottish authors offer dramatic retellings of stories from the nation’s history, myth and legend.’ I’ve read one of the others, Rizzio, and loved it, so will be adding the third to my TBR very soon!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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