Her first novel, The End We Start From, about a new mother and her baby escaping rising floodwater in a near-future England, was one of my favourite debuts of the past five years. This, her second novel, is equally impressive; pitch-black and bloody it tells of married, stay-at-home mother Lucy who discovers that her husband Jake has been cheating on her with his older colleague. "Hell hath no fury" runs the proverb, here with bells on as Lucy takes her revenge. A cross between a dark, poetic fairytale and "Doctor Foster" on steroids.
Anger in female characters has sometimes stirred controversy. Claire Messud hit back at criticism that Nora, the middle-aged protagonist in her novel, The Woman Upstairs, was unlikeable. “We read to find life, in all its possibilities,” she said in an interview. The Harpy is a sharp reminder of difficult possibilities, including the imperfect pacts that can sustain a marriage.
With “rage moms” being touted as a political force in the forthcoming US election, Megan Hunter’s potent contemporary fable about the enduring taboo of female fury becomes especially relevant. Every bit as riveting as her debut The End We Start From, it centres on Lucy, an ex-classicist whose existence has narrowed to the rented home in which she works and raises her two young sons. When she discovers that her husband, Jake, has been having an affair, they agree that she may hurt him three times. For Lucy, it’s transformative, and the ensuing drama blends mythic motifs with pointed swipes at modern motherhood’s double binds.
The prose is brilliantly cinematic, gauging the escalating emotional intensity of Lucy’s anger with taut language. Her acute self-awareness of her behaviour after the cataclysmic phone call is unnerving. She muses how women depicted on screen would give histrionic reactions to this news: “I could fling myself at him, pummel his chests with my fists, demand that he tell me everything.” Similarly, when deciding how to confront Jake, she is conscious of not doing it in a way that feels scripted or cheesy. What is most arresting about the narrative is how it charts the metamorphosis that takes place inside Lucy, both psychologically and physically, as she begins to recognise the emotional reverberations of the betrayal.
It permits Hunter to write viscerally and incisively about her real themes: the taboos of female desire and rage; the loss of self that comes with motherhood; and the violence inflicted on women's bodies by both childbirth and men.
As Lucy's anger becomes an energy, she begins to feel herself transforming. The momentum builds to a hallucinatory conclusion which sets this striking, pared-down modern myth apart from the mass of domestic noirs.
As already discussed, the original language part of the equation was never going to present her with too much difficulty, but she also manages to elevate her story to something that is at once rooted in the everyday and effortlessly transcends it by adding to the mix Lucy’s long-standing obsession with the harpies of classical mythology – deliverers of vengeance with the faces of women and the bodies of birds. Some might find this aspect of the novel a little contrived; if they do, they can skip over these fairly brief passages and still read a gripping, psychologically astute account of a relationship in free-fall.
It’s intentionally ambiguous whether the metamorphosis The Harpy’s main character undergoes is supposed to represent a horrific potential outcome of the stifling of the self by the nuclear family, or a solution to it. Lucy’s violence is always muffled and curiously suspended, as if in aspic, alongside recollections of the aggression of her own parents. Although she does truly awful things, it’s difficult as a reader to pass judgment on her behaviour.The Harpy asks its readers to consider whether emotional violence can be uncoupled from its physical counterpart, and whether one can justify the other.
The Harpy is an inventive and often powerful novel, in which Hunter succeeds fantastically in combining the naturalism of domestic drama with an atmosphere of crackling mysticism. But the writing sometimes lacks self-restraint, and the harpy would be a more powerful figure were it lingering in the background, not flapping in our faces.