by Laura Diaz de Arce
Reading Hexis is very much like being spun around in a playground carousel. It’s dizzying, but you are emboldened by the wild feeling of it. It may be a bit nauseating, but you’ll ask to do it again. And in the middle of all this, your perception and sense of time becomes questionable.
It’s difficult to do a spoiler-free review of Chalene Elsby’s debut novel Hexis, because I keep wanting to pull out lines and give you the context for all of it. In general, the book is about a woman who keeps killing her rapist/ex-boyfriend. These killings take place in moments that seem out of time, both in and out of reality. The work is deliberately obscure, and at intervals I kept wondering if this was the same protagonist and murder victim, or if they were all different men, or if it was different women enacting their revenge, but they all share the same story. That’s the dizzying part, and it’s wonderfully challenging.
The really brilliant part of the book is how deftly Elsby writes the protagonist and narrator. She murders, yes, but her thought process feels concrete, her neuroses and anger touchingly familiar. Elsby punctuates her narrator with crisp lines that hit you like a pen to the eye. There were times I had to stop and put down the book just to meditate on them, because they were so acute and yet arrestingly simple.
“I hated it when people imagined that other people weren’t people.”
And, “You can’t tell other people how to feel, they told me. But then I always had to feel as I was told, and it didn’t make sense.”
Perhaps the most difficult part of the novel was figuring out which parts of the narrator were her own and which were mine. Her discomfort, her motivation, her quickened, eager need for violence will be familiar to anyone who has had to live like a second-class citizen. The book is violent, we are talking murder after all, but its a visceral (though still nauseating) violence undercut with efficient practicality.
Hexis is also about time and perception, and it deliberately plays within those concepts. The plot is out of time in a lot of ways, the only consistency is the difference between the relationship and the murders at eighteen years apart. Though the voice of the narrator is consistent, I had to wonder if she is just one woman or all of us. Is it me killing this man?
For me, the mark of a good book is how long I will be thinking about it after. I’ll be thinking about Hexis for a long time.