I really enjoyed The Harpy by Megan Hunter. I had seen some buzz building for it online ahead of its publication date in June 2020. When the opportunity to read it prior to publication came along, I was attracted to its dark premise and modern twist of Greek mythology.
Legends describe harpies as having the body, talons and wings of a bird, with the head of a woman. The harpy is often a villainous creature, known for bringing punishment upon men. I was therefore intrigued to see how Megan has woven this mythology into a contemporary setting.
Thirty-somethings Lucy and Jake are married and have two sons, Paddy and Ted. Lucy works from home while Jake is an academic at university. When she is informed by the husband of one of Jake’s colleagues, that his wife and Jake are having an affair, it triggers a destabilisation in Lucy’s mind.
Confronting Jake, they agree to stay together, and form an ominous pact that Lucy can hurt him three times to settle the score. What unfolds is a marriage of misery, bitterness and mistrust while still attempting to keep up with the Jones’s.
As Lucy becomes unhinged and embroiled with rage, her long-held fascination with harpies begins to resurface. Mania begins to take hold and it is clear that she is haunted by childhood traumas of domestic violence. Each act of harm against Jake becomes more extreme, along with the consequences.
At just 200 pages long, The Harpy is a brilliant piece of literary fiction. I think it will appeal to students of English Literature and Classics, and anyone who likes experimentation in style. The book is split into four parts, with frequent interspersion of the harpy resurrecting and taking hold like a parasite. The end of Part II culminates in Lucy committing her second act of harm, and it truly made my jaw drop.
This is one of those stories where there are no winners, and both Lucy and Jake are deeply flawed. Their actions and motivations frustrated me. I couldn’t understand why either of them wanted to stay, but also knew why neither was leaving. While I wouldn’t say the outcome is predictable it has something beautifully poetic about it, that feels fitting of its legendary roots.