Megan Hunter’s novel The Harpy is published this month. She shares five books about women transformed.
“The Tiger’s Bride” from The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Transformation comes at the very end of this extravagantly sensuous story, as a revelation of self, a removal of layers through eroticism to a true being beneath, covered in “beautiful fur.”
Jane Ciabattari: Carter flips the “Beauty and the Beast” tale in such a fascinating way. To what extent did this story inspire the transformation of Lucy in The Harpy as she takes revenge on her husband Jake for his infidelity?
Megan Hunter: I read these stories when I was around seventeen, and many times since. I can see the way they have influenced my writing in many ways; in the aim for a sensuous freedom of language, in the everyday heightened by myth and fantasy, and in a precise attention to bodily experience, to name just a few. When writing The Harpy I certainly wanted to carry the reader forward with the sense of inevitability that is found in Carter’s text; this enables the reader not only to suspend their disbelief but to feel that the transformation must happen, that it is immanent within the narrative itself.
“The Mouse Queen” from The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova
Abandoned after giving birth, the narrator of this story is struggling: “I felt like I had given birth to the twins from my head and my head hadn’t recovered.” At night, once her babies are in bed, she reads for a while, then promptly turns into a wolf, rampaging through shops and carrying “bouquets and novels and sausages” home in her mouth.
JC: “The Mouse Queen” is a haunting tale. How does Grudova open the portal to the surreal?
MH: I love how the sense of the surreal builds and deepens through the story in small, potent ways, particularly in the lurking sense of death (perhaps the most surreal thing imaginable). The narrator’s husband Peter gets a job as a gravedigger, and says an ultrasound picture of their twins looks like an “ancient, damaged frieze.” There is a crucial moment when the narrator digs up a corpse that Peter has buried: this reversal in the process of the “eternal pregnancy of death” seems to be a portal of sorts, pulling the story in a darker direction.
Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
The narrator’s transformation here feels gradual and not necessarily physical, but is rendered in evocatively corporeal imagery as she merges with the landscape around her, boundaries of self, language and world beginning to blur: “I lean against a tree, I am a tree leaning.”
JC: Atwood’s narrator searches for her missing father on the remote island where she was raised, gradually merging with nature. Do you have favorite passages from the eerie scenes when she is in the water?
MH: This is another book I read as a teenager, and the ending in particular has always haunted me: the language is so extraordinary. Just one passage that gives a sense of its power: “The earth rotates, holding my body down to it as it holds the moon; the sun pounds in the sky, red flames and rays pulsing from it, searing away the wrong form that encases me, dry rain soaking through me, warming the blood egg I carry.” In terms of a visceral encounter with both nature and memory, the unconscious and the non-human, I think it’s unsurpassed.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
A dream of cruelty leads to a very ordinary, yet transformative decision: Yeong-hye will become a vegetarian. But this turn from meat towards the world of plants becomes more transgressive and visceral as conformism is pierced by the unconscious, by the dark, dripping forest surrounding daily existence.
JC: I’m curious to know how you feel about the three points of view from which this story is told—Yeong-hye’s husband, her brother in law, her older sister all describe her experience. Only rarely does she describe how she experiences herself changing, musing at one point, “Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts; nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe.” How do you think this choice of point of view affects the arc of the story?
MH: I think that, for me, these rare glimpses into the central character’s experience are made more powerful by their brevity. They also lend the text a particular sense of mystery and tragedy, a unreachable reality that throbs behind the main text. There is certainly a frustration in seeing Yeong-hye through other people’s eyes, but this itself mirrors some of the confining circumstances that lead to her transformation. There is also the impressive fact that the reader’s sympathy (or my own, at least) remains firmly rooted with Yeong-hye, despite the book’s refracted perspective.
Lady into Fox by David Garnett
This fable-esque novella begins with the sudden changing of Silvia Tebrick into a fox; told from the perspective of her husband, she is at first an obedient and polite wife, albeit in animal form. But as the vixen’s behaviour becomes increasingly wild, the domestic sphere proves too confining. Her newfound freedom is influential, leading her husband to conclude that “beasts are happier.”
JC: First published in 1922, by a member of the Bloomsbury Group, this tale is told in a straightforward manner. In the opening pages, Silvia Tebrick and her husband are out for a walk when they hear a nearby hunt. He rushes ahead, to get a good view of the hounds. She hangs back, and “he, holding her hand, began almost to drag her. Before they gained the edge of the copse she suddenly snatched her hand away from his very violently and cried out, so that he instantly turned his head. Where his wife had been the moment before was a small fox, of a very bright red. It looked at him very beseechingly, advanced towards him a pace or two, and he saw at once that his wife was looking at him from the animal’s eyes. You may well think if he were aghast: and so maybe was his lady at finding herself in that shape, so they did nothing for nearly half-an-hour but stare at each other, he bewildered, she asking him with her eyes as if indeed she spoke to him: ‘What am I now become? Have pity on me, husband, have pity on me for I am your wife.'” The most evident transformation begins at once. How does Garnett show us the ultimate transformation?
MH: Despite the suddenness of the metamorphosis that opens the book, its real strength is found in the more gradual breaking of animal disorder through the genteel setting of the Tebrick home. Silvia, as a fox, is at first expected to live her previous life, wearing clothes and eating daintily; there is an anarchic kind of joy in the way she begins to reject this, despite her husband’s initial dismay. The way that her new form of life comes to include him is the real core of this book, for me, bringing the human and animal worlds together in new and unexpected ways.