MARCH 29, 2020
HIGH SCHOOL MIGHT SEEM like an odd place to plot a murder, but Jade Khanjara, the protagonist of Hannah Capin’s novel Foul is Fair, disagrees. Member of a self-declared coven of teenage witches, Jade and her friends have grown up in a glittering part of Los Angeles, with parents who possess too much money and not enough time to worry about their children’s schemes or to clamp down on them with rules. After a sweet 16 party goes terribly wrong, Jade does what many girls have contemplated but lacked the guts and resources to do: she gets revenge.
In this retelling of Macbeth set in a Catholic prep school — complete with uniforms, a chapel, a Latin teacher, and lacrosse — Capin focuses on the iconic and maligned figure of Lady Macbeth, rendering her as an Instagram-contoured teenage girl of Indian descent. But unlike her Shakespearean predecessor, Jade’s motive is rooted not just in power but also in a visceral — perhaps even righteous — thirst for revenge. Whereas Lady Macbeth craved greatness for her husband and house, Jade is impelled by the violence she experiences in the novel’s opening act — a gang rape that takes place offstage but that propels her throughout the story, filtering through her consciousness in snippets that provide clues to who’s next.
With the help of her girlfriends, Jade enrolls at St. Andrew’s Prep with the goal of taking down Duncan, the trust-fund boy and lacrosse captain, along with the athletes who form a protective circle around him, all complicit in violating Jade’s consent. She chooses Mack, a “golden boy” on the fringes who is angry about his teammates’ soul-stealing activities but powerless to stop them, to carry out her mission. In the social Darwinist, hyper-masculine hierarchy of a private high school, Capin shows how even the most basic morals can be sacrificed to favor the popular and privileged. Duncan abuses his girlfriend, Lilia, whose status as “queen” is drawn solely from her relationship with this “boasting pride of the school, king and captain, Dartmouth-bound.” She exercises little agency and fears that breaking up with Duncan would cause her to become a social outcast.
While many young adult stories, especially in film and television (e.g., Gossip Girl, The Clique), have glorified gender and class hierarchies, depicting characters who must learn to navigate these systems, Capin’s antiheroine attacks the locus of white masculine power from the inside. Prep school, a junior blueprint for the one percent, is not a sanctuary from the real world, but a promise of what is to come. And in the cruel, glamorous world of Foul is Fair, Duncan is king, which is exactly why Jade must dethrone him.
In her scheme of revenge, Jade is assisted by her coven: Summer, a blonde heartbreaker; Jenny, an Asian girl with a whiplash tongue; and Mads, a strong, serene black trans girl. It is fitting that Jade is herself a person of color, the daughter of immigrants, the kind of character who has long occupied the margins of high school fiction but seldom been the center of the action. The girls come together after getting their magical “wings” when Mads is bullied in middle school. Both their racial diversity and their occult powers are handled subtly, in ways that are neither tokenizing nor distracting, naturally blending in with the glowing L.A. sun.
Jade has suffered violence, but she won’t allow it to weaken her, and she derives strength from her rage over what she has faced. “I’m not a victim,” she tells the counselor at the hospital on the night of her 16th birthday, and she dislikes the term “survivor” even more, “with its painted-false bravery.” Her cynical stance toward the parents and teachers who would prefer to look the other way captures Gen Z disdain for the status quo; in this story, the youngest know the most and will do whatever it takes to get what they need. Jade does not flinch while executing her deftly crafted plot. Instead, she expresses a laughing excitement at the unfurling violence. She manipulates her assailants to turn on each other, with murderous results, and persuades Mack with subtle whisperings to avenge the numerous girls Duncan and his friends have drugged and raped.
As the story unfolds, the allusions to Macbeth provide archetypal shadows. A mysterious bird descends on a tree outside Mack’s house the night Duncan dies after a drunken game of Truth or Dare. Jade, her hair dyed black, effortlessly infiltrates the group of students that humiliated her. “Look like the innocent flower,” she tells Mack. “But be the serpent under it.” Meanwhile, Mads, Summer, and Jenny play the three witches, and their complex sisterhood fans the flames of Jade’s fury. When Jade starts developing feelings for Mack, who is supposed to be nothing more than a tool for her vengeance, her friends call her out for it. But Jade’s strongest bonds are forged in blood: as she and Mack become “[p]artners in greatness,” rising to the vacant roles of king and queen after Duncan falls, Jade reflects that “anyone who kills for me stops being no one the second the knife falls.”
While the parallels to Macbeth largely succeed, some scenes come across as rather stilted, disrupting the flow and chemistry of Capin’s 21st-century story. Mack shines with promise, and his angst and need to atone for his friends’ sins provide valuable material for character development, but he goes largely unexplored beyond Jade’s relationship with him. His occasional assertions of complexity and growth are swallowed up in the revenge-driven plot.
Foul is Fair is a tightly paced novel, its aestheticized language deepening the intoxicating contrast of beauty and violence. Yet, while thrilling and impossible to put down, it does contain some disappointing moments. Jade attempts suicide after killing Piper, the girlfriend of one of her rapists who walked out in anger as Jade lay drugged, and this sudden change of heart seems inconsistent with our heroine’s character and intentions, since she otherwise glories in the murder of people who wrote her off as a “roofied slut” or a “little whore.” Yet it is hard to hate Jade for what she has done, for having succeeded in getting revenge against truly evil people. “I am ruinous and unruined,” she thinks as she stands in a red dress on the front lawn of the mansion where the book started, proud of her bloody accomplishments. “What’s done is done.”