A phone call splits Lucy’s life in two: before and after.
Her life in a university town is shared with her husband Jake, a scientific researcher, and their two primary school-age boys. In retrospect, the before times appear innocent. “This is it: the last moment,” reflects Lucy. “The children are watching television. The sun has gone, the garden nothing but rectangular darkness at the back door. I look at myself . . . she doesn’t know.”
When a man calls to say Jake is having an affair with his wife, Vanessa, Lucy’s reaction is to carry on: she fetches water for her two young sons and makes chicken for dinner. As she writes, “nobody thinks they will become that woman until it happens. They walk down the street, knowing it will never be them. They have no idea how it is: like the turning of a foot on a crack in the pavement . . . a single instant, the briefest action, changing it all.”
Underneath the domestic conventionality bubbles a rage which spurs her to make a disturbing pact with Jake — to inflict pain on him three times and then they will be even. It is unsettling for the reader — as it is for Jake — to await the revenge.
Her anger is shown by her increasing preoccupation with harpies, interwoven with her account of her family life. She recalls a book she had as a child “about a unicorn who went into the sea and became a narwhal . . . the picture I remembered best was of the harpies: dark shadows, birds with women’s faces, who came down to torture the unicorn, to make him suffer”. Lucy pictures herself as such a creature: “wings filling with air, the whole world flattening beneath”.
Infidelity in her spouse seems to awaken Lucy, who becomes increasingly alert to the constraints of domesticity. Motherhood was a theme that Megan Hunter tackled in her previous novel The End We Start From, against the backdrop of cataclysmic floods. Here Lucy blames being a mother for her invisibility: “the stains on my clothes, the darkness of fatigue under my eyes, my head down, hurrying. Of course, women will always look, will notice the way your jeans are slightly too tight, the good colour of your hair. But now the men looked away. Even when I stopped under a group of builders working late, there were no calls, no whistles.” Working from home provides little solace. Once in publishing, she is now a writer for hire — “hotel brochures, private school prospectuses, company training materials. I told myself that I was seeing the world, that I was writing the world.” Other mothers are in the same boat — “most of us had careers that were still on hold or had moved, somehow, to a forever part-time, lower-waged track.”
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.
Anger in female characters has sometimes stirred controversy. Claire Messud hit back at criticism that Nora, the middle-aged protagonist in her novel, The Woman Upstairs, was unlikeable. “We read to find life, in all its possibilities,” she said in an interview. The Harpy is a sharp reminder of difficult possibilities, including the imperfect pacts that can sustain a marriage.
The Harpy, by Megan Hunter, Picador, RRP£14.99, 256 pages
Emma Jacobs is an FT features writer
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