Like the last book I covered, ‘The Harpy’ is a book that I find myself thinking about fairly regularly. It too was an important piece of my development as a writer. That is because, despite my issues with its narrative, this is a book whose presentation is so exquisite as to raise the whole to a greater level.
There’s a lot to learn from the book in terms of how to present a story in a way that makes the readers really care, really get invested in a story that, written any other way by any other writer, might not have been effective at all. So, let’s explore how it does this.
The first encounter you will have with this book’s language comes through its prologue, a poetic scene description juxtaposed with equally expressive descriptions of the violent act taking place within it. The writing in this book is never simple or plain. The author always uses evocative, arguably melodramatic language to present the POV character’s mindset, thought processes and emotional responses to each of her situations. Hence, right at the beginning, we’re presented with the night sky alongside a razor being pressed into his skin.
The ‘him’ in this instance is the POV character’s husband, Jake, who has been caught cheating on the ‘her’ whose perspective we are following, Lucy. As for why she is now cutting into his skin? Well, an agreement has been made. Lucy will hurt Jake three times.
This is a story of vengeance.
Themes of vengeance and betrayal and hatred have bled into every major genre of storytelling since the very first tales of mythology. They have featured in fairytales. They featured in our religious texts. They featured prominently in the epic poetry and classic stage plays of our history. And now they feature in this book.
This is significant because ‘The Harpy’ draws from each of those classic genres of storytelling through its narrative and thematic exploration, but much more prominently, it draws from their style of presentation.
Because the poetic, watercolour painting esque style of writing we’re confronted with in the prologue continues throughout the book. Melodramatic, tragic storytelling is joined by lyrical syntax, and rhythmic listings, and powerful word choices, and very emotional, psychological perspectives rather than material descriptions. Descriptions that can nevertheless be as violent and visceral as they are dramatic and emotional.
Like the classic works of literature it draws from, ‘The Harpy’ uses many literary devices in order to produce more powerful depictions of its narrative beats. The most prominent of these, being its figurative language. Metaphorical phrases are woven into the text on a regular basis, like the idea of thoughts beginning to form dense and mysterious places inside Lucy’s mind. This mind is what we readers have been thrust inside of thanks to the first person perspective, so the author having turned her into the kind of expressive soliloquiser we haven’t seen since the classics represents that dense and mysterious mind – and makes us feel the way Lucy feels.
What’s important is that, although the book is very simile and metaphor heavy in general, it is especially so during its emotive scenes, such as when Lucy first discovers her husband is cheating on her and compares this pain to the pain of childbirth. This choice of metaphor is also significant because it places one of the book’s main themes in our minds early on, and also draws attention to how prominent a theme this is within Lucy’s mind.
That theme is femininity.
Femininity is central to the linguistics of this book. So the childbirth analogy is followed by the distant way she notices her nausea being compared to the pethidine she was offered in labour – you won’t feel less pain, you’ll just notice it less. There are references to caesarean sections. Queen bees and their misnomer title, since they are not rulers, but servants to the greater hive. And most importantly of all these examples, is the recurring imagery of harpies. Their mythological origins, their symbolism, and their presence as monsters in a children’s book, that Lucy somehow always related to more than their victims.
It is from this detail that the book’s title is born – but I’ll return to the harpy later.
Something else that’s interesting about the continuing similes and metaphors is how often they compare one thing, to the wrong other thing. For instance, the Vanessa who Jake cheated on Lucy with, being described alongside the unkillable slime within a drain.
It’s like broken poetry, tainted poetry, ‘wrong’ poetry – which enhances the subversive, and dark, and rebellious femininity that forms the core of the story.
When we talk about prose though, it’s not all about figurative language and the more conventionally interesting aspects of vocabulary. It’s also about tense. By which I don’t mean tension, but time, and its relation to the storyteller. In this case, the book doesn’t fit neatly into one category.
Which, honestly I could say about ‘The Harpy’ under many different circumstances.
But in regards to time, it doesn’t fit into one category because it is simultaneously using past tense language, while presenting things as if they are happening right now. The story Lucy tells us feels at once long past, and as if it is a realisation of the moment – like when she refers to Vanessa as simply ‘she’ and ‘her,’ in past tense, then becomes instantly aware that her name had become unbearable suddenly.
It’s clever, interesting decisions like this that further entwine the prose and narrative. This is something that I personally always find appealing in a story, but it’s vital in a first person narrative because that decision makes a promise (at least, it does to me) that I’ll be fully immersed in that narrator’s mind as they tell me their story.
It’s especially important to ‘The Harpy’ because of the presentation choices more generally. If this is a poem, whether on its own, or as part of a greater mythology, then it’s crucial that we can feel exactly what the character is going through in their mind, as they experience it, something I’ve alluded to already.
And so we get passages where dialogue becomes inarticulate and childish by Lucy’s own admission, turning dialogue into her own past/present distance in a way the prose has functioned throughout. Or characters trying and failing to avoid cliches, but slipping into them anyway – immersing us in the hopeless attempts at preservation, which is what their cliches are really about. Or the way prose becomes more staccato at a certain point of the book as Lucy’s mind becomes hyperactive and stressed out.
But my favourite example of this intertwined nature between character and presentation is that unique approach to tense, which is so effective because the character becomes increasingly disconnected from the events and realities around her, and so we, as the readers immersed in her mind, need to feel that broken element of those events as well.
In other words, the story is broken, because the mind is breaking.
That leads me nicely onto the next important piece of the puzzle. Because, as important as word choice is to a novel, it’s not the only thing presentation refers to. We also must consider the structure of the novel.
‘The Harpy’ is divided into extremely short chapters, each one separated by brief, one-page passages written in italics on the nature of femininity, and good and evil, and most prominently, that ever-present theme of the harpy – what I call the ‘harpy segments.’
With or without these harpy segments, I never felt like I was starting a new chapter. It felt more like Lucy hectically flipping back and forth between thoughts, in her overwhelming, chaotic mind. I could split these thoughts into a number of different categories, but I think, overall, they each fit into one of two – her normal life, as a wife, a mother, a “normal” woman. And the darker, stranger side. The harpy within her.
The harpy segments are not the only place italics feature. Dialogue is also presented using italics, rather than the usual quotation marks. It’s a unique choice I haven’t seen anywhere else, and it depicts in a compelling way the distance with which Lucy perceives the events transpiring to her, and around her. Like the whole thing is a dream, or memory. And it also means that chapters are continually broken up by italics. Whether through harpy segments, or dialogue, the story is fragile, just like Lucy often feels.
Brief chapters are made up of brief paragraphs too, right through to the end. Passages push you through the story as quickly as the increasingly stressed out Lucy flips between trains of thought, and occasionally paragraphs become even brisker, or even more broken apart, when certain moments strike our narrator.
For instance, one early chapter made up of the usual short poetic paragraphs, is broken up further by transcriptions of the voicemail which informed her of the cheating. Or how about a later section of the book where Lucy discovers Jake and Vanessa together in a restaurant, and as she turns away from them, hears the words ‘we were just talking’ over and over in her footsteps, such that each word is a new line on the page. Divided, both read and heard like gunshots.
All this makes it clear how this character’s thoughts are not at all ordered or structured in the usual sense of a novel – it’s like her thoughts are literally bleeding into the page. We’re digging through her conscience. And that’s exactly how a good first person narrative should feel to read.
‘The Harpy’ also makes use of another kind of divide, because the broken, chaotic mind of Lucy can’t avoid these extra divisions, I suppose. As such, the book is split into ‘parts,’ each one ultimately defined by one of the three hurts – which we will get into now.
In order to talk about the hurts, and the way they combine each element of the presentation we’ve discussed so far, I want to return to the prologue.
See, the first thing you’ll notice about how ‘The Harpy’ is structured, is actually a bit of a trick, since it is something that only comes into play later on. By starting with a prologue in which Lucy cuts into her husband’s skin, the book foreshadows one of the three hurts that form the main narrative arc. The structure here involves brief paragraphs broken apart as if taking turns – one paragraph depicts Jake’s relation to another woman, the next depicts a moment of the cut, and another describes Lucy’s first attraction to him. There’s a fairytale element here, but something is twisted – and like the dark twistedness of a fairytale, it ends with a description of blood, of stark, contrasting colours. And his silence.
But this isn’t relevant yet, right? This doesn’t happen until a long time later, so why are we confronted with it right at the start?
Well, like the presentation has been tied to Lucy’s mind all along, perhaps this foreshadowing is an important part of Lucy too. Maybe she has always known she was going to change. For now, we know this hurt is coming, and for the rest of the book we’re left with it sitting in the backs of our minds.
It’s only after this prologue that the parts come into play, but we don’t know they are related to the three hurts until even later, when finally, the divided segments we saw in the prologue come back into play. They were imprinted so strongly on the reader’s mind that it’s unmistakeable what territory we’re heading into. This time though, the divides create hesitancy, a façade that Lucy has once again settled into the motherly role, the “normal woman” role, making dinner. She tries to convince herself that maybe she won’t go through with it – but the presence of the divides makes it absolutely clear that she always intended to go through with it, at least subconsciously. And so she poisons her husband. It's a common trope of the classic tragedy, which makes the language use we’ve discussed so far feel somehow at home, as if this is more Lucy’s home than the façade she put on for herself.
In a similar way, Part II contains the second hurt, but whereas Part I had a moment’s reflection after the first hurt, there is no such after scene this time. Part II delivers the second hurt, and then ends. And when it brings back those divides once again, this time there is no duality, no façade. The hesitancy is still there, but it’s all about this one act as Lucy becomes fixated on punishment, on vengeance, and considers if she really wants to devote to the change they are summoning inside her. The last thing that matters, is the repetition of “undo” – an option she refuses. There is no going back from here.
The duality instead takes place in the aftermath of the second hurt, at the beginning of Part III, where the narration of this aftermath is placed alongside discussions of daffodils and it seems odd, this combination of normality and malice. But it’s something that’s been there throughout. It’s as though, with the crossing over of the halfway point between these hurts, everything we have seen from the book’s presentation so far has become heightened. More like itself. More closely moving towards that change – Lucy’s final destination.
All this of course leads to the third and final hurt, by the end of Part III, as we finally return to the prologue, its depiction of the third hurt given clarity, and context, as though Lucy has been thinking about this for a longer time than she realises, longer even than discovering her husband’s betrayal.
But I can’t talk about anything that follows without getting into spoilers, so if you want to read ‘The Harpy’ as spoiler-free as possible, which I would recommend, go do that, then come back to this essay. With that said, let’s continue.
*There will be spoilers ahead*
There is duality again, with the third hurt, but this time there’s no lightness, there’s no happier moment Lucy can reflect on. The physical violence is instead interspersed with emotion, with misery and hate, vague memories of Vanessa’s lack of remorse. And we get to see the end of this hurt. It goes wrong – a wave instead of a drop – sudden, shocking, with no build up, as if the briskness of the narration has turned against its narrator, a listing of synonyms as if the blood is all she can think about.
The writing at the end of this hurt is very chaotic, as if, now Lucy is confronted with the end that she was always heading for, she is surprised, broken out of hypnotic stupor, and fully lucid about the destination she was heading towards.
And in direct opposition to Part II, Part III goes on way longer after the hurt, Lucy delving deep into those troubling recollections of her past as the poetic language becomes more fully itself than any previous chapter. Ending with a harpy segment, a confession.
I am her. I am here.
All of which leads onto Part IV.
But wait, that doesn’t make sense, right? There can’t be a fourth part, because each of the parts is one of the hurts, and there are only three hurts. Right? It must be the drawback of intertwining presentation with character… Right?
Well, maybe. But I think there’s something else going on here. Something more interesting. And something more creative. Let’s bear it in mind a moment.
Right at the beginning of this essay, I mentioned how the poetic language of the book also draws from classical and biblical elements. These are similarities the main character acknowledges herself – saying, on the agreement that she can hurt Jake three times, that it’s “a familiar number for a good, Christian girl like [her].”
Of course, she later admits that this is not something she has ever been. Because what she’s always been is something else, something darker.
What she has always been, is the Harpy.
This character has been swooping in and out of the book in the harpy segments, and occasionally elsewhere as well, introducing us to important aspects of femininity, and the things women are and are not conventionally allowed to be and do, as well as the harpy itself, as a mythical monster, and the way it has developed over time.
Originally, one of these segments points out, the harpy was merely a symbol of bad weather, before being developed into a hateful man-killer monster over time. Another points out that it was given “a face made ugly by anger.” This is an important part of the book’s presentation because it represents a distant, projected awareness within Lucy of what she used to be, and has always wanted to be, and is, in fact, becoming.
This is why the book starts with a foreshadowing of the third hurt, which went so wrong. This is why the harpy segments swoop in and out between chapters (even being missed out once, but only once, as if making a feign promise she is gone, as Lucy similarly almost moves on from the hurts, before being brought back around to them). This is why references to childhood always come back to the harpy, and the way she identified with it and was told she wasn’t anything like it by her parents. And this is why there is a part IV.
The harpy is a mythical monster described using fairytale prose – referring to grandmothers and mothers and children and husbands, lyrical listing in certain paragraphs such as how “she drags and burns and scrapes and mutilates.”
Because this is why the presentation has been like this the whole time. The harpy itself is what ties everything in this book together, because it’s what has tied Lucy together this whole time, being the one and only obsession she has never gotten past.
What ties poetic and mythological and fairytale prose together? It’s very flowery, classical, emotive, thematic. It feels old and prophetic as opposed to merely narrative. It feels like a rant or emotive poem or fable because, really, it is all of these things. That’s what this book is, and that’s what the harpy is – and that’s what Lucy is as well.
But just like with the harpy, it didn’t happen all at once. It took changes, evolutions, mutations that happened over the course of the book. Like when she became no longer able to function with strangers. Or when her language became increasingly vulgar for a spell, further subverting stereotypes of femininity. Or when she became rageful and boundary breaking in Part II because everyone knows and is talking about her and Jake behind their backs, and we feel her anger, her scorn, her betrayal, because it’s so ingrained in the presentation. Or when Jake just decided that Lucy is the one who has now done the worst thing. Or when she became increasingly unsympathetic to her children, unmotherly in everyone’s eyes, even her own – asking if “a mother is human, or only human shaped,” as she has become so increasingly disillusioned with stereotypical images of femininity.
Or when Jake betrayed her trust. Got it back. Betrayed it again.
A face, made ugly by anger.
Where does all this go?
With the third hurt going wrong. That is the final straw. When the presentation becomes totally disconnected from everything before but also, maybe, even more like the elements it had before. As Lucy dies to become the harpy, or maybe, the real myth died so Lucy could admit to being the harpy.
The last few pages of the book are very ambiguous, leaving almost everything up to reader interpretation. But my interpretation is that the third hurt going wrong was no accident. It was the third hurt for Jake, but it was also the third hurt for Lucy, breaking off her constraints and becoming who she really was all along.
And this – this! – is why there is a fourth part.
Because the real, final transformation into the harpy is the fourth hurt. Not for Jake, because he is frankly irrelevant, and always has been. It’s always been about Lucy, right from the beginning – which we knew, because of the presentation being so deeply intertwined with Lucy as a character, and as a mind.
So this is the fourth hurt. Lucy’s fourth hurt.
And there was a moment of hesitation even within this transformation. As the chapters got longer for the first time towards the end of the story. A moment of hesitancy, just like all those previous hurts, with the duality, and the divides, that were only her own mind trying to convince her she wasn’t like this. But she was.
The format here is a culmination of everything presentation-wise the book has drawn from across the story. Its format is a combination of the divides of the hurts, and the italic harpy segments. It seems to be her transformation into the harpy, but also, maybe something else.
It’s extremely vague, so very much open to interpretation, which is an aspect of presentation I always prefer. So the exact truth of the harpy is left to you. Maybe this is the final hurt, some kind of self hurt. Maybe it’s a painful transformation that will lead to something better. Or maybe it’s just more pain, in a harpy-shaped expression of defeat.
So, what is it about a book’s presentation that makes the readers care so much? Well, in ‘The Harpy,’ there are three main factors:
Its language and vocabulary are carefully considered so that every single word of every single sentence has exactly the desired effect – in this case, to draw from poetry and classic literature to deliver a thematic tale of hate, rebellion and vengeance in a powerfully emotive way.
Its structure perfectly emulates the perspective character's state of mind, and the way it is becoming increasingly broken, but also increasingly focused on the most important thing for her.
Its core element, the harpy itself, is used as a tie between these two elements, and the narrative itself, taking on a form that represents the themes while manipulating the text and structure so in the end, the harpy is the most prominent feature.
If there’s one way ‘The Harpy’ successfully makes you care with its presentation, it’s by fully devoting to the POV character, putting the reader inside of her head, and it does this through every possible tiny instance of presentation – prose, syntax, font, paragraphing, chapters, parts, phonetic lettering.
Every single decision has been precisely considered, and nothing was an automatic choice.
As great as this book’s presentation is, presentation is only one part of a great book. In my last essay, I talked about the second important element – narrative.
Link to my essay about narrative for those who want it: