Megan Hunter’s Harpy – Revenge for Infidelity

A phone call divides 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 elementary school boys. In retrospect, the past appear innocent. “That’s it: the last moment,” reflects Lucy. “The children watch TV. The sun has gone, the garden nothing but rectangular darkness at the back door. I look at myself . . she does not know. “

When a man calls to say that Jake is having an affair with his wife Vanessa, Lucy responds: She fetches water for her two young sons and makes chicken for dinner. She writes: “Nobody believes they will become that woman until it happens. They walk down the street knowing that they never will be. They have no idea what it is like: like twisting a foot on a crack in the sidewalk. . . A single moment, the shortest action that changes everything. “

An anger gushes beneath domestic conventionality that spurs them into making a disruptive pact with Jake – inflicting pain on him three times, and then they will be even. It is unsettling for the reader – as it is for Jake – to wait for revenge.

Her anger is shown in her increasing preoccupation with harpies, which are woven into her account of her family life. She remembers a book she had as a child “about a unicorn who went into the sea and became a narwhal. . . The image I remembered best was of the harpies: dark shadows, birds with female faces that came down to torture the unicorn and make it suffer. “Lucy introduces herself as such a creature:” Wings fill with air, the whole world flattens out underneath “.

The infidelity in her spouse seems to arouse Lucy, who is increasingly aware of the constraints of domesticity. Motherhood was a subject Megan Hunter covered in her previous novel, The End We Start From, against a backdrop of catastrophic flooding. Here Lucy blames her mother for her invisibility: “The stains on my clothes, the darkness of tiredness under my eyes, my head bowed, hurrying. Of course, women will always look, will notice how your jeans are a little too tight, the good color of your hair. But now the men looked the other way. Even when I stopped among a group of builders working late, there were no calls, no whistles. “Working from home offers little comfort. Once in the publishing business, she is now a rental writer – “Hotel brochures, brochures for private schools, training materials for companies. I said to myself that I see the world, that I write the world. “Other mothers are in the same boat -” Most of us have had careers that were still on hold or somehow moved to a permanent, part-time, lower-wage route. “

The descriptions of repetitive domesticity are painful. “Sometimes I thought that was the worst thing about marriage: the way you knew exactly what every note, every gesture, every single movement meant. Sometimes, even before that happened, I longed for a misunderstanding so as to have no idea what he meant. “

The strength of Jäger’s novel is its ability to disturb – the protagonist’s anger is disturbing, but so is her decision to seek excruciating revenge instead of abandoning her husband entirely.

Anger towards female characters has sometimes sparked controversy. Claire Messud fought back criticism that Nora, the middle-aged protagonist in her novel The Woman Upstairs, was unlikely. “We read to find life in all its possibilities,” she said in an interview. The harpy is a keen reminder of difficult ways, including the imperfect pacts, that can keep a marriage going.

The harpy, by Megan Hunter, Picador, RRP £ 14.99, 256 pages

Emma Jacobs is an FT feature writer

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