What’s the point of writing an unoriginal sentence? A predictable sentence? A sequence of words that has been committed to paper hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before? This seems to be Megan Hunter’s starting point whenever she sets out to write a novel … in The Harpy…flashes of inspiration are spread… sparingly through the text, and if anything this gives them even greater impact. Rather than trying to land a haymaker with every punch, it’s as if Hunter is learning how to box clever, adding more variety to her repertoire, ducking and weaving before landing a decisive blow … you can’t help wondering if this isn’t Hunter’s challenge to herself: to write a novel about infidelity that is somehow different from all the others that have been published before, and to find her own, original language to do it in … If that was her goal, she has succeeded on both counts. 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 … a gripping, psychologically astute account of a relationship in free-fall.
Within this fairytale framework, Hunter’s purposefully non-specific …adds an atmosphere of vague threat, which has a curiously numbing effect. Italicised interludes told from the perspective of the eponymous harpy that Lucy appears to transform into invite a paranoid mode of reading: as Lucy and her family go about their daily lives, it feels as if we’re watching them inside a specimen jar, experimental evidence of human beings’ capacity to damage each other … asks its readers to consider whether emotional violence can be uncoupled from its physical counterpart, and whether one can justify the other. By blurring the boundaries of the two – a mild poisoning and revenge pornography occupy the same textual category of harm – the novel sketches out the unsettling psychological terrain that can lie beneath bourgeois marital composure.
The prose is brilliantly cinematic, gauging the escalating emotional intensity of Lucy’s anger with taut language … 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 … As with her debut, Hunter writes about the intricacies of motherhood with striking nuance … This surreal, eviscerating work of fiction lays bare the drudgery of suburban marriage and delves into institutionalised gender roles.
With prose that’s sparse but beautiful, and drawing on fables and myths, Hunter eschews the traditional disaster movie, end-of-the-world aesthetic for something more intimate and even hopeful … from the outset, it’s clear that the qualities that made The End We Start from such an extraordinary debut – the magnificent prose, the mythological underpinnings, the challenges of being a mother – are also evident in The Harpy. … wickedly funny … Sliding between different modes and genres – twisted fairy tale, kitchen-sink drama, social commentary, and psychological thriller – The Harpy is near impossible to classify. Of course, that’s precisely why I love the novel and why I hope to be reading Megan Hunter’s fiction for years to come.
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 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 ... 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.
You should not judge a book by its cover, but that's not to say that covers don't sell books. In the case of Megan Hunter's The Harpy, the cover did its job. It intrigued me with its image of a bird-woman. When I read the description I was hooked. Was the woman in the novel actually turning into a harpy? Boy, did I feel ready for a monstrous transformation. Alas, I have to warn every horror aficionado: It's not a were-bird book. Harpies appear throughout the narrative, but what we have here is a literary rumination on womanhood and marriage. I'm saying this so you can recalibrate your expectations. Specifically, what we are looking at is the destruction of a marriage. I know, you're going to say that sounds boring, or, all literary novels are about the destruction of a marriage. Of course, that's not the case ... What The Harpy offers is a beautiful, poetic account of said marriage, and also an insightful character study ... In the end, The Harpy plays as an ever-so-slightly surrealist meditation on marriage, motherhood and love. It is introspective and the prose is quietly beautiful. It shows that a tired and tried subject, such as adultery, still has some juice one can squeeze out. And when it borders on a dark fairy tale, The Harpy soars.
The descriptions of repetitious domesticity are painful. 'Sometimes I thought this was the worst thing about being married: the way you get to know exactly what every tone means, every gesture, every single movement. Sometimes, even before this happened, I would long for a misunderstanding, to have no idea what he meant.'...The strength of Hunter’s novel is its power to unsettle — the protagonist’s rage is disturbing, but so is her decision to exact an excruciating revenge rather than leave her husband altogether.
[The premise of the novel] 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 ... The momentum builds to a hallucinatory conclusion which sets this striking, pared-down modern myth apart from the mass of domestic noirs.
An unquenchable thirst for revenge drives Lucy, a wife and mother, to the brink of madness in Hunter’s sleek, supernatural thriller … Lucy’s narration is irresistible, though the harpy sections, which suggest Lucy is physically transforming, are underdeveloped by comparison. Hunter maintains suspense until the final act of her satisfactory tale.
…recalls the work of Angela Carter but lacks her black humor and stringency … Hunter’s taut, intentional prose is strong on physical descriptions … but she studs her narrative with philosophical assertions that are perplexing at best … A shimmery prose style cannot save this slim, simplistic, and pretentious tale.
The preposterousness of the solution is only momentarily distracting ... 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.