The Harpy by Megan Hunter
Published by Picador Books on 3rd September
Available from all Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
Lucy and Jake live in a house by a field where the sun burns like a ball of fire. Lucy works from home but devotes her life to the children, to their finely tuned routine, and to the house itself, which comforts her like an old, sly friend. But then a man calls one afternoon with a shattering message: his wife has been having an affair with Lucy’s husband, he wants her to know.
The revelation marks a turning point: Lucy and Jake decide to stay together, but in a special arrangement designed to even the score and save their marriage, she will hurt him three times. Jake will not know when the hurt is coming, nor what form it will take.
As the couple submit to a delicate game of crime and punishment, Lucy herself begins to change, surrendering to a transformation of both mind and body from which there is no return.
Told in dazzling, musical prose, The Harpy by Megan Hunter is a dark, staggering fairy tale, at once mythical and otherworldly and fiercely contemporary. It is a novel of love, marriage and its failures, of power and revenge, of metamorphosis and renewal.
What I Say
I asked my mother what a harpy was; she told me that they punish men, for the things they do.
There are few novels that serve to unsettle the reader so deliciously and perfectly, blurring the lines between the mythical and the real. The Harpy is a novel that may be short, but it builds in momentum to a moment that is the perfect ending to a story of love and revenge and imprisonment and freedom.
Lucy and Jake seemingly have an idyllic marriage. They have two sons called Ted and Paddy, and are caught up in the usual concerns and constraints of parenting and marriage. Lucy works at home as a copy writer, and juggles parenting with her job, while Jake works long hours as a University academic.
Then one day, Lucy receives a phone call which shatters the world she knows. Jake has been having an affair with a woman called Vanessa that he works with. Lucy’s world has changed forever and she has to face the man she thought she knew better than anyone.
This is not a straightforward story of a woman scorned and a penitent man. At the heart of the story is The Harpy, a mythical creature which has a woman’s head and body and a bird’s wings and claws. It is here the novel shifts between magical realism and the claustrophobic domestic narrative.
The narrative is physically split in the novel between Jake and Lucy, and the other story – how Lucy has always been fascinated by the story of The Harpy. There is the underlying notion that her interest comes from the fact that Lucy is closer to understanding a what a Harpy is than we could possibly imagine.
As Jake and Lucy struggle to repair their marriage, and acknowledge the pain that Lucy is suffering, Jake tells Lucy that she can hurt him three times – he will have no forewarning, and when it’s done, Lucy’s revenge will be complete.
This turns the novel in a new and dark direction. We know that Lucy feels an affinity with The Harpy, and has done since she was a child, and has studied it extensively. The clues in the text seem to suggest it is a side of Lucy’s personality she has subsumed for a long time. Now it has been awakened, and Lucy is ready to fully embrace all the chaos and mayhem the Harpy will bring to ensure that Jake is published for his betrayals.
For so long Lucy has done exactly what is expected of her in the marriage and has played the role of dutiful wife and mother. Now she has this immense power and tantalising freedom to do what she wants when she wants, this is tempered by the fact that this is not easy for Lucy, but for her to move on it she knows has to be done.
After she has hurt Jake twice, things start to twist and turn and Lucy’s world is shaken by a decision Jake makes after everything he promised. As the novel draws to its heartstopping conclusion, the spectre of the Harpy looms ever closer, and it becomes more difficult to see where Lucy ends and the Harpy begins. There is a building tension and as Lucy physically runs away from her marital home, the descriptions become more raw and sensory as she is aware of the environment around her. It is as if Lucy is leaving behind her domestic world and entering the magical and natural one to absolve herself of what pain she has inflicted on Jake and the pain he has caused her.
The Harpy works so well because of how Megan Hunter has captured the reality and limitations of the domestic sphere and the grinding reality of a world where Lucy is constrained by the expectations of her husband and her sons. You feel her frustration as if she is caged, her desperation as her marriage implodes, and her realisation of the power she has if she gives finally gives way to the Harpy. It is a chilling and beautifully written book that may be short, but perfectly captures both the nuances of a marriage in crisis, and a woman who unearths the strength she has kept buried for so long.
I absolutely loved it.
Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for my gifted copy of The Harpy.