The Harpy by Megan Hunter: Righteous anger

Cover imageThis is the second novel in as many months I’ve read about a couple in the aftermath of infidelity. Slightly disconcertingly both husbands were called Jake but although Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule and Megan Hunter’s The Harpy share some similar themes, stylistically they couldn’t be more different. Since the superb The End We Start From I’d been hoping for another novel from Hunter and so was delighted when this new one appeared in the schedules, although thanks to Covid-19 it’s taken rather longer to hit the book shops than originally planned. This gorgeously written piece of fiction incorporates the titular mythological creature in an exploration of female anger in response to men’s bad behaviour.

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

Lucy works from home as a copywriter while Jake is an academic at the local university. They have two young sons, much of the childcare falling to Lucy in the week. When she reluctantly answers a call while juggling a multitude of domestic tasks at the end of the day her world is shattered: it seems Jake has been having an affair with a colleague whose husband wants Lucy to know about it. Contrition is expressed and promises made to break off the affair but Lucy’s anger has been unleashed. Memories of her parents’ abusive relationship and her childhood obsession with the mythological harpy resurface. At their annual Christmas Eve party, held at Lucy’s insistence, it becomes apparent that she’s the subject of humiliating gossip. A way must be found to deal with this fury and the couple makes a bargain: Lucy will hurt Jake three times, the nature and time of the hurt to be of her choosing. After the third wound they will be quits, his hurt balancing hers, but there’s no accounting for anger.

The woman who married Jake, who became a wife and mother, who would never be a real person again

Hunter narrates Lucy’s story in her own voice, punctuating it with brief impressionistic observations, exploring the loss of female identity, subsumed in domesticity, motherhood and the imbalance between men and women. The device of the harpy – a word often used to denigrate women who speak their mind – is a masterstroke but then Hunter is the consummate wordsmith. Her writing is spare but often lyrical, her images dramatic and powerful, each word carefully chosen, exemplifying the reason I so often seek out novels by poets. Delivered after a sequence of particularly striking beauty, the ending is quite devastating. An extraordinary book, stunningly jacketed – not a description I use often. Still mystified as to why it didn’t appear on the Booker longlist but I’m pinning my hopes on next year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

Picador: London 2020 9781529010213 256 pages Hardback

16 thoughts on “The Harpy by Megan Hunter: Righteous anger”

  1. A really interesting premise for a novel, the idea that one hurt can be paid back by inflicting hurt on the other person is the kind of idea to get book groups talking.

  2. When I first heard of this book I sighed at the thought of yet another book about infidelity and aftermath but reading your review has got me much more interested. So I now have it on reserve via the library…

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