‘They punish men for the things they do’

Megan Hunter, The Harpy

Picador, 202pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781529010213

reviewed by Venetia Welby

I first encountered Megan Hunter’s dark magic in Libreria, a bookshop off Brick Lane in London. She was reading from her debut novel, The End We Start From, the haunting story of a new mother fleeing flooded, apocalyptic London. In 2017 the book had just come out and Hunter was in the middle of writing a second – a quite different experience, she said. The first one happened very quickly; in some ways, authors have been writing their first novel all their lives. She was reluctant to say more about her next project for fear of dismantling her own creative process, and I have been waiting with excitement for what would become The Harpy. This tale of modern metamorphosis, like The End We Start From, treads the line between the earthly and transcendent. On one level it is the psychological excavation of a suburban marriage on the rocks, on another, a spell to summon primeval feminine power. Above all, it is prose informed by poetry. Hunter is also a poet and her lyrical voice bewitches.

The story is fairytale simple: Lucy Stevenson, ex-classicist and frayed mother of two, is devastated to discover that her husband Jake is having an affair with an older colleague. To make it even, they agree that she may ‘hurt’ him three times. What is not so simple is the transformation this pact brings about in Lucy, whose latent obsession with the harpy as a mythical figure begins to stir. The ‘dark shadows, birds with women’s faces,’ had first come to light in a childhood book. Lucy’s mother told her, ‘they punish men for the things they do,’ triggering a deep fixation: ‘She became my days: all I did with my life, for years, was read about her.’ Now the harpy, subject of her abandoned PhD, invades her mind again, ‘a tornado just beginning, roaring into life’: a new powerful female identity.

The impotence of women, engendered by the parts they must traditionally play in life, is at the heart of the novel. Lucy comes from generations of frustrated women, their female creativity turned against them. Her mother was hospitalised by her father’s fist, her great-great-grandmother saddled with twelve children: three died, one ‘left out in a pram until his face blistered over in the sun.’ Hunter’s evocation of the overwhelming labour of childrearing is startling and moving: ‘At thirty, I presumed my life to be over, to have been taken over by the qualities that were always promised to arrive one day: pain, work, exhaustion.’ Though there are tender moments of motherhood, Lucy envies ‘all those mothers who no longer wanted anything for themselves,’ the kind of women who sob at their child’s concert, ‘their tears truly pride and not some concealed mourning . . . for their lost selves.’

Marriage and motherhood are compared to death: ‘no one comes back unchanged.’ When Jake betrays her, Lucy is enraged to have a new pitiable role thrust upon her – she is damaged goods, ‘just a housewife really . . . Not worth staying faithful to.’ Worse still, she achieves only the moral lowground by the ever-grislier punishments she inflicts on her husband. She must – can only – go further. Lucy’s infatuation with the harpy intensifies, a vision of female rage forged through male injury. The ‘bird-woman’ had been there all along: ‘a single wing tip’ in Lucy’s mind when a boy first kicked her in the stomach, a ‘clawed shape’ in the ‘watery cave’ of a first forced kiss. When Jake cruelly points out that their neighbour is unlikely to desire her; when Lucy feels bile that ‘could drain out of me, flood our house, lift our furniture, take over the world,’ she channels the violent energy of the winged ‘Snatcher.’ We fear she too will swoop: ‘An expert at stealing things . . . Like sudden wind, she comes down. She takes it all away.’

Lucy’s doctoral research allows Hunter to explore the figure’s mythology, with Lucy asking herself ‘over and over again’ what exactly a harpy is. The hybrid creature has been called ‘Unnatural . . . Ugly . . . Foul’ by ‘writer-men’ such as Virgil, who is quoted at the beginning, but to Lucy she is magnificent, reclaimed mythic female thunder and destroyer of male wrongdoers. She is a monster who was originally ‘not a monster at all,’ merely a signifier of storms. Lucy speaks of her in short italicised passages between chapters which grow with erotic force as the harpy starts to possess the narrative.

This monstrous mythic avenger is held up in contrast to the Christian god, enabler of male violence through the New Testament’s doctrine of forgiveness. Lucy prayed to this god to forgive her father’s violence against her mother, as her mother had done before her. The harpy does not know forgiveness: she rips out eyes, she ‘drags and burns and mutilates.’ Even the cuckolded husband of Jake’s mistress expects Lucy, ‘the wronged woman’, to forgive Jake. He, amazed, is disdainful that she does not — but Lucy is already becoming the harpy in all her glorious viscerality and blood fever. She is, ‘ravenous, the huge hunger still there despite it all, an engine working without thought, consuming everything.’

The harpy is childless, the creative feminine archetype turned destructive. She is seductive, though, a deadly, spectacular opposite to the patriarchal idea of a good woman. She bestows the freedom of birds; a home ‘on the wing’ in place of the false security of four rented walls, the deceptive perfection of the nuclear family. The language of transformation has an elevation befitting the avian aspect of the harpy. It soars. Lucy’s changing is described as, ‘a deeper, slower removal of the self, a smooth sliding motion, like a drawer pulled completely out. In its place: a gap, a nothing, somewhere I had never been.’ The shifting power dynamic, characters’ roles and even their mercurial facial expressions are, like Lucy, constantly in flux as suspense builds towards a shattering ending.

The Harpy is a brilliant and eviscerating work of literary fiction. It should come as no surprise that the film rights have already been snapped up by Benedict Cumberbatch. What of the taut grace of Hunter’s words can be preserved cinematically remains to be seen.
Venetia Welby 's new novel, Dreamtime, explores the future of Okinawa’s military occupation. It will be published by Quartet in April 2021.