The Harpy by Megan Hunter

Reviewed by Annabel

Megan Hunter’s beautiful and poetic debut novella, The End We Started From (reviewed here for Shiny by Lucy Unwin), the story of a woman about to give birth in the middle of an environmental catastrophe, took my breath away with its vision of motherhood, flooded London and becoming a refugee. Interspersed within the central narrative were short paragraphs from creation/destruction myths from around the world, which gave that main story a mythical import of its own too.

Three years later, her second novel is again inspired by myth. Harpies were half bird, half woman creatures of Greek and Roman legend; wind spirits originally, often pictured as ugly, shrieking and ravenous with long sharp claws. This image has persisted through the centuries with them appearing in Dante’s Inferno, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado…, Benedick describes Beatrice thus to Don Pedro:

Will your grace command me any service to the world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on. […] rather than hold three words’ conference with this harpy. You have no employment for me?

Knowing about harpies thus, I started reading this novel about a husband’s infidelity and his wife’s reaction to it with a distinct feeling of dread. It is disturbing right from the start, for the prologue takes us close to the end of the novel:

It is the last time. He lies down, a warm night, his shirt pulled up, his head turned away. It is the kind of evening that used to make me want to fly through the sky, the kind that makes you believe it will never get dark. …

We have agreed on a small nick, his upper thigh, a place that will be behind jeans, under shirts. A place of thick flesh, solid bone, almost no hair. A smooth place waiting.

Jake is not squeamish: he is like a man expecting a tattoo.

A couple of pages later, we return to the beginning of the story, meeting Lucy and Jake properly. Lucy works from home and is a devoted mother to their boys, and one afternoon she gets a phone call. The husband of one of Jake’s colleagues rings to tell her that his wife and Jake are having an affair. Lucy’s busy but happy life is shattered in that instant. That evening, confronted, Jake insists he’ll break it off, but that’s not enough for Lucy who remembers the harpy from a childhood book.

I asked my mother what a harpy was, and she told me: they punish men for the things that they do.

Lucy and Jake agree on a punishment, after that they will be quits. She will be allowed to hurt him three times, she can choose how and when. How will she play the game – if game it is?

At nearly a third of the way into this novel, we are already into very dark territory, left to imagine the ways in which Lucy will exact her revenge. But things are made worse when she realises that friends and colleagues all seem to know, and pity and gossip stoke her anger all the more.

As she did in her first book, Hunter lets her main character narrate the story. Once again, the main text is broken up with short sections in italics, this time given to Lucy’s innermost thoughts. She thinks over the concept of the harpy, the way her own life has become consumed by motherhood and housekeeping, but also examines the way her emotions are changing.

At just under two hundred pages, this novel is short enough to be read in one session – indeed, there is no way you’ll want to put it down unless the house is on fire or something equally dramatic!  Hunter’s second novel shows a writer in control of her work, her choice of language is as poetic as before, beguiling yet intense, full of subtext between the lines and there is this added power to shock too. The Harpy, with its striking cover, is disturbing, but so good to read, and as Congreve said in his play The Mourning Bride:

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny editors.

Megan Hunter, The Harpy, (Picador 2020). 978-1529010213, 196pp., hardback.

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