Book Review : The Harpy by Megan Hunter

Well, where to begin!! If I tell you that I practically devoured this book in less that 24 hours on our first journey south since lockdown, pretty much oblivious to everything and everyone around me then you should get a good idea of it’s impact.

The Harpy by Megan Hunter will literally make your heart stop. I suspected when Camilla Elworthy sent me a proof I had a little treasure in my hands, but I couldn’t have imagined how much I would enjoy this book. Originally due for publication by Picador in June, but like so many books, delayed due to ‘the current situation (!)’, until 3rd September, The Harpy is waiting, coiled to blow everyone’s literary socks off this autumn!

It is the story of Lucy. With a degree in Classics, Lucy is now working from home as a part time copy writer. She is committed to her family; husband Jake, who is an academic at the local university and her two young boys Ted and Paddy. She is secure in her relationship , making her marriage and the boy’s childhood work in a way her own parents failed to do.

And then quite suddenly she receives a phone call. The husband of one of Jake’s colleagues phones to tell her that his wife, Vanessa, and her husband have been having an affair. Her world collapses. In shock and disbelief she confronts Jake. He is contrite and offers a way forward; a way to repair their marriage and even the score.

Lucy will hurt Jake three times. He will not know when or how. This will avenge his wrong doing. This is the first echo of the modern day mythology that reverberates through out this book. Suddenly Lucy’s lifelong interest and learning in Classical Mythology is much more than a detail. Woven together with her past childhood experiences of domestic abuse the scene is set for a tale of revenge and power. A tale where actions speak louder than words and nothing can be undone.

Enter the Harpy. A mythical bird-woman, the embodiment of revenge; powerful but dark, feared. She has been Lucy’s obsession in her childhood and through her youth, sparking her interest in Classical literature , sustaining her through dark times. But in her marriage Lucy had found peace, laid the Harpy to rest. But it the Harpy is just sleeping, waiting coiled to renter Lucy’s consciousness and life. To change things. The Harpy is a lynchpin, an idea, a motif that becomes more vivid, more solid as the novel progresses.

The Harpy on some level represents Lucy’s past; her childhood tainted by domestic violence. Like her obsession with the Harpy these memories are lying dormant. When the marriage she has created with Jake starts to fall down her memories resurface. The effect her past experiences have had on her break through and begin to unsettle Lucy. Through his proposal Jake has introduced domestic violence to their relationship. Suddenly this horror is almost sanctioned, and Lucy and the reader are left in a turmoil. The feeling that emotional betrayal has to be physically avenged is accepted within classical mythology, but within a modern marriage? Is this allowed? Does the desire or the need for revenge cancel out the reality of abuse? Have the past examples of Lucy’s own upbringing instilled within her an almost default mechanism? Will she always return to type in a crisis, following the example of her parents? And what cost revenge; not just to Jake but also to Lucy? How does this overwhelming sense of vengeance change her, emotionally and physically?

The Harpy is a modern day myth. It steeped in the feelings of a dark fairytale, bound up with classical mythology. There is a a recurring motif of natural disaster; physical descriptions of bodies, references to like gods or warriors are scattered through the text. Time and again we return to the tension created by forgiveness verses revenge. It is embodied within the characters of both Lucy and David Holmes, the wronged partner of Vanessa. The sense of myth and the blurring of reality increases as the time moves on, moving towards the climax.

The Harpy is fresh, dark and raw. It has a simplicity but also a complexity which is impossible to define. There is so much to digest and discuss in this book. If you are looking for something unique, which will both challenge and entertain, then this my friends is the book for you!

Rachel x