The Harpy by Megan Hunter
Published by Grove Press, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
When Lucy discovers that her husband has been having an affair with one of his colleagues, they agree that she will be allowed to hurt him three times as penance. This look at marriage, revenge, violence, and forgiveness is at times brilliant, but it suffers from a desire to work in a fabulist subplot that ultimately feels superfluous.
The novel really shines when it plants itself firmly in the real world, focusing on Lucy’s mental anguish and the endurance of domesticity in the face of life shattering news. She manages to capture the contrasting comfort and resentment that can stem from parental responsibility, especially where mothers are concerned. Indeed, Hunter does an excellent job of making Lucy and her husband Jake feel like complex, three dimensional characters, with both being capable of great tenderness and savage cruelty.
Glimpses of Lucy’s childhood – during which she was exposed to extreme domestic abuse between her parents – show the ripple effect that trauma can have throughout a person’s life, warping her perception of violence and atonement. This thread builds on one of the book’s best and most prominent themes, which is the disparity in society’s response to emotional and physical pain. If we know it’s wrong to inflict physical suffering on our spouses, why does the emotional pain of betrayal invite little more than gossip and sneering from those around us?
All of this, and a sense of building tension, make for a truly gripping read. And though it could be argued that the prose is overdone, something about the narrative voice really worked for me. Running in parallel with Lucy’s story, however, we are given occasional snippets of a magical-realism-esque perspective that plays with the mythology surrounding harpies. There is obvious and interesting thematic intent here – about the demonisation of women and the potential monster that lurks within all of us – but they never felt integrated enough to add anything that wasn’t already being explored through the core narrative. These asides were always brief enough not to distract too much. That is, until we reach the book’s climax. Hunter chooses to abandon her realist approach and lean fully into the strangeness and ambiguity of the harpy side plot. Though part of me appreciated the dual interpretations this ultimately offered up regarding the conclusion of Lucy’s story, either outcome feels unearned when framed in this way.
Uneven but always compelling, it’s possible this suffered all the more for its imperfections, simply because of how brilliant it proved it could be.
Thank you to the publisher for a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.