Book review: Hex, by Jenni Fagan

In her re-telling of the true story of Geillis Duncan, hanged as a witch in Edinburgh in 1591, Jenni Fagan shows how the deep-seated misogyny and callously casual sexism of the 16th century are still present in our own time, writes Stuart Kelly

Jenni Fagan PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic
Jenni Fagan PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

Archetypes are always open to re-interpretation. This has very much been the case with the idea of the witch. Recently we have had a street in St Monans renamed in memory of a witch; Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl’s album Heal and Harrow about those executed as witches; and a bill brought forward in Holyrood by Natalie Don MSP on behalf of the Witches of Scotland project, created by QC Claire Mitchell and novelist Zoe Venditozzi, asking for victims of witch hunts to receive an official pardon. One might look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wicked, or even (my favourite) Frau Totenkinder in Bill Willingham’s Fables for iterations of how the witch can be rehabilitated. The idea of retrospective exculpation is one which I feel a certain ambivalence towards: if those women, then why not Margaret Maclauchlan and Margaret Wilson, the Wigtown Martyrs, who were killed under law for their beliefs and without any supernatural suppositions? Why not give an amnesty to every Covenanter, Royalist, Jacobite or, indeed, Thomas Aikenhead, hanged for blasphemy which might well have been some silly undergraduate humour? The past is bloody and it is complex. Moreover, whose grief is assuaged by such campaigns and petitions and promotions? One thing I know: it’s not the dead.

Jenni Fagan’s novel in many ways brings the problems around these issues into focus. It is part of Polygon’s Darkland Tales series, where authors can experiment with how to re-tell Scottish history. Denise Mina has already presented her take on Rizzio, court politics, gossip and men who feel belittled; Alan Warner has a book out in the autumn, with the intriguing title Nothing Left To Fear From Hell. Warner always side-steps expectations, and I am delighted he is part of the series. Fagan’s book is, as one might expect, elegant and angry in equal measure. She has taken for her spur the story of Geillis Duncan, hanged as a witch in Edinburgh in 1591. But she puts a genuinely magical realist twist on the story, in that Geillis is visited in prison on the last night of her life by a person called Iris, who has transported through Null and Ether to be there. Iris might have determined to go or might have been summoned to come; she might be a familiar or she might be dreaming. She might transform in reality or in imagination.

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Part of the impetus behind the revision of the witch narrative is its contemporary relevance. In Hex Fagan makes explicit that this is not about anything otherworldly, but about the cold, hard nature of power. It is glib to think this is #MeToo with ruffs and doublets. The novella insists that what has gone on is still going on, perhaps even more dangerously. Iris answers Geillis about the present: “no it’s mostly just men doing what they feel entitled to do, certain women’s deaths seem like they are almost, well, expected. In really poor neighbourhoods, or in areas of prostitution, you’d think that some women’s murders appear acceptable, even, to some, and they are certainly far less questioned than others. There are those that hunt women or children who nobody cares about.” This is similar to the ire that was clear in The Panopticon or Luckenbooth. The problem is systemic, rather than historic. The depictions of the abuse Geillis suffers do not allow the reader to wince. The fact that the behind the misogyny and callously casual sexism is actually a calculated plot involving money, inheritance and power is more chilling. Harm is here a mere means to an end for capital.

Hex, by Jenni Fagan
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Yet the book has its moments of lyricism and joy, recollections of days by the sea shore, frustrated hopes of a simple life. But the novel is sharp. “Just children, or girls, old or ugly, outcast, poor, strange, odd-voiced, limping or unholy or too tall or too pretty… when will we, not as witches but simply as women, curse our accusers?” The novel ends with an elegy, with the haunting phrase “a grey rose” to describe the storms supposedly conjured. It seems fitting that it ends in epitaph.

One thing irked me. When Geillis is in prison, she is visited by a priest. In 1591, it would have been a minister, and I doubt whether holy water or crossing oneself would have been the order of the day. The character seems a cipher for male hierarchy in general. Given that time is somewhat fluid, this may be just a part of the swarm of thoughts, but it jars a little.

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Hex, for a book about such trauma and agony, is a crisp, clear book. When the hex is finally unveiled there is a sense of triumph, tinged with future sadness, that is orchestrated well. This series has already produced two works of note and distinction. It raises the question – if a country cannot re-tell its history, will it be stuck forever in aspic and condemned to be nothing more than a shortbread tin illustration? Hex and Rizzio are showing the way towards a reckoning, and about time too.

Hex, by Jenni Fagan, Polygon, £10

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