The Harpy by Megan Hunter is a piece of fiction I am unable to categorize in a specific genre since it is incredibly unique.
This is one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever read. The protagonist is a woman named Lucy. She is a wife and a mother. At least she sees herself as only that. After marrying her husband Jake and becoming a mother she abandons her PhD and her career. This results in her staying at home and becoming a shadow of herself. The plot is intense and fast-paced, so in the first few pages she finds out her husband Jake is having an affair with his work associate Vanessa. Lucy’s reaction is thoroughly explained since we are experiencing the story from her point of view. We get to have a look inside of her psyche as she experiences this big life-changing event. She compares her own mental state to her knowledge of women’s reactions to cheating husbands in media such as soap-operas, movies, and books, where women react violently and strongly. She is bewildered by the revelation that she doesn’t have a need to act as those women do. We see her pulling away from Jake, but not once does she think about leaving him. She becomes very passive-aggressive and it is interesting to see that her pain and disappointment manifest physically – she is continuously sick and vomits. Throughout the book, we also find out that she is deeply traumatized by her pregnancies and the brutal complications that followed the birth of her sons. This results in her fear of doctors and even, subconsciously, sex. Also, she constantly questions her capability of being a good mother and a wife, even though she sees herself as only that. This is among other things due to her memories of her toxic parents and the upbringing she had.
And now we come to her hyper fixation on the mythological creature Harpy. I’ve decided to write it capitalized since she doesn’t see the Harpy as a general term for all such creatures, but I believe she sees it as a singular entity. As a child, she first came across the Harpy in one of her picture books and immediately became fascinated by it. The ruthlessness of the creature was appealing to her. However, she also saw it as something rightful, something worthy of punishing those she deemed morally wrong.
“I asked my mother what a harpy was, and she told me: they punish men for the things they do.”
At first, she was in fact scared of it, found it gruesome, but as she digests the tragedy of her marriage she starts to relate herself more and more to the Harpy. This becomes a focal point of the story after Lucy and Jake come to a certain agreement. They decide that in order for Lucy to forgive him, Jake must let her punish him three times. The symbolism of the number is important to Lucy since she connects it to her time spent going to church as a child – the Holy Trinity for example, but even more so Saint Peter’s three betrayals.
“Three. I’d said it out loud, after he did. It made a kind of neat sense, something religious about its structure. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Peter betrayed Jesus three times. A familiar number, for a good Christian girl like me. I remember being allowed to ring the bell, in church: three time, I was told.”
As she does these three acts we see her becoming less and less remorseful, but at the same time, she fights the urge to fell remorse since it is in her eyes the right thing to be. Every punishment is more brutal than the previous one. But it is very interesting that Lucy isn’t consciously aware of that nor of the consequences of the punishment. She thinks very little about the outcome as she punishes him and is even a bit confused it comes to pass. Then she starts to force herself to feel remorse but often fails. She slowly loses empathy. It is also worth noting that as the punishings start, she no longer feels sick nor vomits.
“He would know – as I had known for years, forever – how easy it was for a body to be destroyed.”
Furthermore, even though she is so overwhelmed by doubt of the capability of being a mother she subconsciously resents it and often thinks about things that could have happened to her children resulting in their death. However, every time such a thought passes through her mind she compares her behavior to other mothers that had perhaps done something that endangered their child. This makes her think very highly of herself and she puts herself on a pedestal of being a perfect mother.
When she thinks of Vanessa, her husband’s mistress, she glorifies her. Primarily by comparing herself to Vanessa. She sees her as “sophisticated and unblemished by child-bearing or rearing”. Everything Lucy is not. This awakens even deeper resentment towards Vanessa in her.
Lucy’s transformation into the Harpy is both literal and metaphoric, but not thoroughly explained leaving this book in the realm of magical realism. I like this very much since as much as it shows Lucy’s character development, it also leaves the reader craving more and needing an answer. The answer, since it is non-existent, is upon the reader to find himself.
As Lucy transforms, we watch her lose herself. She sometimes doesn’t recognize herself anymore.
“My hands were no longer my own, I began to suspect. The belonged to someone else. Mrs Stevenson, perhaps. The woman who married Jake, who became a wife and a mother, who would never be a real person again.”
The writing. It is beautiful. There is no other word I can come up with to explain it. Even when explaining the most gruesome of acts, Megan Hunter accomplishes to use an enchanting lyrical tone. This way, the story flows and seems almost dream-like.
There actually aren’t many bad things to point out about this piece of fiction. I enjoyed it deeply. And one other thing, which not many authors succeed in, is the way Megan Hunter builds the atmosphere. I was pulled into the story instantly because of it. It helped me understand the protagonist, Lucy even more since I was so disturbed the whole time. I am very impressed by the author for this particular reason, among all the rest.
Must I say anything about the beautiful cover? I couldn’t find the name of the artist. All I can say is that it captures the story, the aesthetic, and the reflects it perfectly.
All that is left to say is that I am excited to read more from Megan Hunter!
I received this book in exchange for an honest review.
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