Megan Hunter’s second novel The Harpy is a dark and dazzling tale of pent-up rage and revenge festering beneath a veneer of everyday domesticity. Mother-of-two Lucy Stevenson’s life is upended by a phone call from a man who informs her his wife is having an affair with her husband Jake. They agree to stay together and he will end the affair in order to preserve their family unit, but on the proviso that she will ‘hurt’ him three times when he least expects it – whether physically or psychologically. Their marriage becomes a precarious game of cat-and-mouse, as Lucy becomes possessed by a rapacious mythological spirit that haunted her troubled childhood.

MR: Lucy recalls a book she knew as a child about a unicorn who became a narwhal and was tormented by harpies. Is this book real or invented?

MH: It’s based on (but not strictly limited to) a real book, an out-of-print children’s book called The Unicorn and the Sea by Fiona Moodie. I found it in a second-hand bookshop around the time I was writing the book – by coincidence it features really vivid, quite scary illustrations of harpies, the creatures I had just started writing about. It’s an old library book and funnily enough the catalogue card is filled with dates from the late 1980s – the time when I was a young child. So it’s not from my own childhood but could have been. There are other children’s books with similarly sinister illustrations that have haunted me from an early age.

What are your own favourite depictions of harpies (both written and visual)? And do you see them as a celebration of female rage and empowerment, or something more sinister?

I love the classical descriptions of harpies, the way they are so varied but somehow collectively build a very recognisable figure. There are also some amazing modern depictions that re-create the harpy as something beautiful rather than repulsive. To me, harpies symbolise the side of femininity that is often rejected or marginalised – the angry, dark, even violent urges that are commonly acknowledged as being part of being human but more commonly ‘allowed’ when talking about men and male behaviour. We don’t like to think of women as being angry, hungry, vicious, vengeful. And this is especially true when it comes to mothers. In terms of empowerment, I wouldn’t want to state anything too simplistic – I think it’s empowering for women to embrace themselves as full humans, certainly, but violence in the novel isn’t a straightforwardly empowering force. In many ways it makes the main character’s situation worse, and there is a sense in which her acts are shaped by Jake, are reactive and sanctioned, much as harpies were said to be directed in their acts by the gods.

I developed a kind of addiction to Alice Munro stories; some are so memorable, I think about them almost daily.”

The narrative switches from Lucy’s matter-of-fact approach to revenge, and Jake’s guilt-ridden acceptance of her punishments, to fantasy-like passages that blur the margins between Lucy’s everyday persona and the harpy that lurks within her. Judging by your debut novel The End We Start From, it’s the routine domesticity that is a departure for you. So how did you approach The Harpy differently?

I felt that The Harpy needed to be rooted in the everyday, in a family home of brooding objects, silent and noise-filled rooms, the pressure and pleasures of a particular house. Initially, that presented itself as centrally an issue of form – what form would this new novel need to be, to express the voice of Lucy in all the stages she goes through, and to express the house itself? I found myself reading a lot of writers who write about dailyness with particular beauty – Alice Munro especially, I developed a kind of addiction to Alice Munro stories; some are so memorable, I think about them almost daily. I also love Helen Simpson’s short stories about motherhood. Through reading, and experiment, I found a way of writing that was for me quite different to The End We Start From, and enabled me to inhabit this woman’s mind – and her home – in a quotidian, hour-to-hour, scene-based way; it’s more conventionally novelistic than my first novel, and I firmly believe each book finds its own form.

Illustration by Gianfranco Ogliani from Fiona Moodie’s The Unicorn and the Sea (Hutchinson, 1986)

“I asked my mother what a harpy was, and she told me: they punish men for the things they do… I wanted to know why their faces were like that: sunken, creased by hate. I wanted to ask my mother more questions, but the words dried in my mouth, sat sour under my tongue, unspoken.”

Behind Lucy’s plain language lie hints of her parents’ abusive relationship and the “trail of anger flowing through my bloodline”, and also suggestions that things were growing stale or poisonous between Lucy and Jake before he embarked on his humdrum affair. To what extent has she been kidding herself about being in a functioning marriage?

I think marriages are incredibly complex; in some ways they are like a machine, so the word ‘functioning’ is appropriate, but actually there are many kinds of dysfunction that can persist, that people can live within for years. There is a final breaking point in marriages that end, but also many grey areas, the ‘ups and downs’, as we euphemistically call them. I think there is an element of denial in how Lucy apprehends her marriage, particularly in terms of Jake’s affair, but there is also exhaustion, distraction, and love too: they are still intimate, even during the affair, which is one of the things that makes Lucy so angry.

What different territory might the book have examined if Jake were not so accepting of his punishment? And what is it about Jake that makes him succumb?

To me Jake doesn’t just accept his punishment; in many ways, he instigates it. I’m not sure, in terms of Lucy’s character, whether she would have carried out the punishments unilaterally; she’s perhaps too passive, at least at the beginning of the novel, for this to have happened. It’s an extremely dark collaboration – an act of their marriage – to be embarked on together, with its boundaries – the ‘three times’ defined and limited by Jake. Lucy has permission for her actions (if not for their exact form), as she needs permission for so much in her life. I think Jake basically thinks of himself as a good person, despite the affair, and is keen for his ‘good person’ status to be reinstated. That can’t really happen without Lucy doing something worse, thus becoming the ‘bad person’. Of course, this is fairly infantile logic, but the point is that this is the point they’ve been dragged to; they’re operating from that childish/animalistic core – the shadow side, if you like, where your actions aren’t intelligent but nonetheless feel necessary. The novel necessarily focuses on Lucy – on her mind, her rage and frustration; Jake remains an enigma, to a large extent, which was a deliberate decision.

Can rage, retaliation and revenge undo an act of betrayal?

No, I don’t think so: I think (hope) the book demonstrates this. But in the swirl of emotions that accompany love and betrayal, I’d imagine it can be very tempting to think they do.

Would you say that Lucy and Jake are distanced by Lucy’s traumas in giving birth?

That’s not something I’ve written deliberately, but her traumas certainly contribute to her disturbed mental state, which in turn affects her marriage. I will say that what Lucy describes – a fairly difficult first birth, and a caesarean – are both incredibly common, so I didn’t mean them to be seen as exceptional aspects of her character.

In The Harpy the threat comes from within, albeit from an external misogyny that has been internalised, but both books explore the connections between domestic and global disturbance.”

Both your books to date are in part about the traps and anxieties of motherhood, while Lucy’s response to encroaching nature – in particular the burning sun outside their comfortable home – is suggestive of impending environmental (and personal) catastrophe, so touches on the apocalyptic Britain of The End We Start From. How else are the two books linked thematically?

I was quite aware when writing The Harpy of writing a very different book. This was something that felt necessary to me. I couldn’t – didn’t want to – write a repeat of The End We Start From, in terms of form or subject matter. For me, motherhood is such a vast topic I could write fifty books about it (although don’t plan to!). Otherwise, I would say there’s a sense of threat in both books as you say – in The End We Start From this threat is mainly (although by no means exclusively) found in the outside world, whereas in The Harpy the threat comes from within, albeit from an external misogyny that has been internalised, and linked with the ability to maintain a ‘successful’ marriage. But both books explore the connections between domestic and global disturbance, something that feels even more relevant these days.

As Lucy embarks on her path of revenge, she becomes obsessed with watching online footage of disasters and murder – and is shocked at how many millions of others seem to be scrolling through the same films. Do you think this kind of footage could or should be shut down on the web? Is mainstream news coverage also guilty of sensationalism, and how does 24-hour rolling news about disaster, war, violent crime – or the current pandemic and associated government failures – affect a nation’s psyche?

I certainly think there are now multiple opportunities to disturb yourself, if you feel that need. The thing that interests me is where we draw the lines between how much of this is ‘acceptable’, even ‘healthy’, and where it becomes pathological or evidence of mental illness. It’s seen as normal, as you mention, to watch sensationalist news programmes, or multiple podcasts, TV shows, etc. about grisly murders, but to watch footage of a natural disaster ten years later would probably be seen as evidence of disturbance. So I’m interested in this impulse and all the different ways it finds expression and prominence in our society.

The narrative grows increasingly fragmented as Lucy loses her grip, and she has out-of-body reactions at critical moments. During a consultation with a doctor when Jake is in hospital, she switches to the third person as ‘Mrs Stevenson’ gives her expected responses, and it is clear she is going through the motions, playing a role. By the end, ‘she’ and ‘I’, Lucy and the harpy, are interchangeable. Did you start out with the idea of two separate narratives colliding to become one?

I didn’t start out with that idea, but as the book progressed it was clear that there would be an interesting interplay between the ‘Harpy voice’ and the main voice of the narration. As a writer I’m intrigued by the ways we read text from different perspectives – it seemed to me that the third person was perfect for the moment of depersonalisation in the hospital; an instant where Lucy feels herself reduced to a type, a category of person rather than an individual. In both of my books I’ve been interested in putting different kinds of texts side by side, almost as a form a collage, and playing with the reactions between them, the way they change the way a reader approaches the story.

Lucy was taught growing up that ‘to forgive is divine’ – but now realises she was poisoned by forgiving her father: “My anger had been diluted, bleached into a pale trace of its form, a covert operator that I would continually – for months, for years – mistake for something else.” And in one agonising short passage she concludes “My fault” as she recalls a sexual assault in her youth after leaving a nightclub alone. Is it your view that forgiveness, guilt and inappropriately applied religious edicts can be equally detrimental to mental health?

Yes – I think there can certainly be too much pressure on victims to forgive before they are ready (if ever). There is also, as we’ve seen repeatedly in recent years, a tendency for blame to be shifted to victims of sexual assault. In The Harpy I was interested to explore the way that one woman has internalised the harm done to her to such a degree that she is filled with it, in a sense – there is so much self-blame, and self-harm (of a psychological nature), that it ends up seeping out into the world around her, and ultimately into violence. As I wrote, I kept questioning whether Lucy is liberated or destroyed by her realisation and inhabitation of the violence at the heart of patriarchy – and I think I’ve left that question open: I didn’t want to write a didactic novel.

Publication of The Harpy was delayed by lockdown. How else have the events of 2020 knocked your expectations sideways?

In practically every way! I keep being shocked again and again, just when I think I am used to the way things have changed. It’s been interesting to see the way that domesticity and the nuclear family have been centralised by lockdown, and the way that gender inequality – on the societal level – has been (even more) clearly revealed by this.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company bought the film rights to The End We Start From. Has anything progressed on that front, and how do you imagine it would turn out? Any film interest in The Harpy too?

I’m very excited about the film of The End We Start From – I recently read the screenplay, and it was such a privilege to see my work translated in that way, turned into something new and brilliant in its own right. There has been film interest in The Harpy too but nothing concrete as yet.

What are you writing next?

I’m writing another novel – I’m always hesitant to say much about work in progress in case it jinxes it in some way but I will say it’s very different to the first two (again!).


Megan Hunter
’s first novel, The End We Start From, was published in 2017 in the UK, US, and Canada, and has been translated into eight languages. It was shortlisted for Novel of the Year at the Books Are My Bag Awards, longlisted for the Aspen Words Prize, was a Barnes and Noble Discover Awards finalist and won the Forward Reviews Editor’s Choice Award. Her writing has appeared in publications including The White Review, the TLS, Literary Hub, and BOMB Magazine. She lives in Cambridgeshire with her husband, son and daughter. The Harpy is published by Picador in hardback, eBook and audio download.
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Author portrait © Tim Hunter

 

 

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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