'Under the Harrow' Is a Gripping Exploration Into Grief, Manipulation and Jealosy
Under the Harrow's narrator will leave you both empathetic to what she bears and enraged at what she becomes.
Under the HarrowPublisher: Penguin
Length: 240 pages
Author: Flynn Berry
Publication date: 2016-06
Among the most popular and intriguing devices in literature (among other places) is the use of an unreliable narrator. Almost always found in first person accounts, the technique forces you to consider the speaker’s intentions and revelations with an especially critical eye, as they may be focused on only what they want you to know or think, not necessarily what the objective truth is. Of course, one could argue that every story told from this POV inherently carries this condition, but some works, such as The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Fight Club, A Clockwork Orange, American Psycho, and Room, are more successful and purposeful than others.
With its riveting yet disturbing plot, interesting side characters, and most important, sympathetic yet untrustworthy “protagonist” (a term used loosely here), Flynn Berry’s debut novel, Under the Harrow, deserves a place on that list. It’s truly a gripping and thoroughly detailed exploration into grief, manipulation, and jealously, and its narrator will leave you both empathetic to what she bears and enraged at what she becomes.
As the official synopsis states, Under the Harrow is a psychological thriller that revolves around a woman named Nora trying to figure out who murdered her sister Rachel (and her dog). After discovering the grisly scene, Nora “finds that she can’t return to her former life. An unsolved assault in the past has shaken her faith in the police, and she can’t trust them to find her sister’s killer ... as Nora’s fear turns to obsession, she becomes as unrecognizable as the sister her investigation uncovers.”
The book has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and for good reason. While the plot isn’t nearly as intricate or twisted, it permeates with a similar sense of betrayal, anxiety, and ominous mystery. For sure, Under the Harrow is sufficiently harrowing and alluring due to its unflinching vividness, relentless pace, and central conflict. After all, everyone can imagine what it’d feel like to discover the mutilated body of a loved one, right?
One of the greatest strengths of Under the Harrow is its ability to convey the denial and disbelief Nora feels regarding Rachel’s death. For example, after finding the remains and calling an ambulance, she states: “I wait for Rachel to appear in the doorway. Her face confused and exhausted, her eyes fixing on mine. I am listening for the soft pad of her footprints when I hear the sirens ... I wait for one of [the policemen] to smile and give the game away ... I try to watch the police so I can tell Rachel what this was like.” While it’s natural to feed these fantasies at first, Nora carries them throughout the book; not only does this demonstrate her longing to change the situation, but it also suggests that Nora may be flat out delusional and mentally unsound.
Adding to her questionable stability, as well as her unreliability, is her incessant need to blame others for the crime. Nora seems suspicious of everyone she comes across, particularly Keith Denton, Rachel’s friend and contractor. She pressures the local police to keep an eye on him and eventually develops an illogical obsession with him:
I want Keith to notice me following him. The important thing, though, that I learned is that I appear harmless. What this means is that I can stalk him and no one will notice but him. If I walk by his house twice in one day, if we eat dinner at the same pub. I’ve never threatened him, he has no evidence of harassment. All I have to do, I think, is be where he is.
It’s this unwarranted penchant to assuage herself of responsibility, coupled with her increasingly detached sentiments (“The thing lodged under my ribs begins to ache”) that makes her increasingly suspicious and unlikeable. (In a way, she becomes the enemy as the story progresses.) Adding to the intrigue, however, is how this constant finger-pointing at a small community (in a small town) leads to several red herrings; in fact, it’s comparable to the masterfully emotional and elusive British show Broadchurch (whose storyline and setting is markedly similar). From beginning to end, Berry’s writing is highly effective in convincing the reader that this person or that person is guilty (even if they aren’t).
Attention to detail is expressly crucial in tales like this, and the author proves to be a master of it. In addition to capturing the minutia of Nora’s thoughts, observations, and actions, she gets readers uncomfortably close to the murder scene itself. Arguably the greatest example of this skill is when she describes the attack Rachel endured 15 years prior to being murdered, after leaving her sister at a bar to watch the sun rise by a nearby river. This moment is a crucial part of both the plot itself (one of the novel’s biggest mysteries is what exactly happened there, and with whom) and the siblings’ bond, and Berry runs through it with a level of misogynistic brutality akin to the infamous rape scene in Gaspar Noé’s brilliant Irréversible:
As soon as he was near enough, his hand closed around her throat, and he pulled her to the ground by her neck ... with one hand pinning her neck, he punched her in the stomach and chest and face. She hit and scratched him ... she tried to drive her fist into his windpipe, but he turned and the blow landed under his jaw. He grabbed her hand in the air and snapped her arm, then trapped it under his knee. He bounced her head against the pavement and her scalp turned wet. He continued to beat her in the stomach and face. Then he stood on the balls of his feet and looked down at her. She cradled her wet head. She tried to lie still but her body jerked and convulsed. When the seizing stopped, she crawled to her knees, then to her feet, and the ground wheeled.
Above all else, Berry nails the inner-workings and truths (or lies) of Nora’s connection to Rachel. She routinely reflects on the experiences they’ve shared to reiterate how close they were (or weren’t), which includes some cryptic allusions to their father along the way. Much like the aforementioned obsession with Denton, Nora seems infatuated with who her sister was and what she could’ve been and done if she were still alive. In fact, she even contemplates taking over for her (which is obviously unsettling):
This was a pattern I could follow for the rest of my life. I could retrace her steps. I could visit the hostel where she stayed in Greece and try to track down the man she met there ... one by one I could replace my tastes with hers ... I could sleep with the men she would have slept with. I could become a nurse, even. It’s not that I already have a career. And maybe that’s what I would do, if she were in prison. If what happened that day was that she killed someone instead of the other way around. I would do what she wanted me to do and then tell her about it in detail. We often confused memories. It was easy if you walked long enough.
While Under the Harrow is very impressive overall, there are a couple things that could’ve made it even better. Although the resolution isn’t as predictable as it might’ve been (thankfully), it still feels too quick and weightless because there isn’t enough set-up (so its “A-ha!” moments aren’t as strong as they should be). Also, more could’ve happened plot-wise. Granted, following Nora as she peels away the layers of the situation is captivating (as is peeling away the layers of her psyche), but there was room to include more events to even the balance of storytelling and character study.
Under the Harrow is a nearly impeccable debut; its language is stern yet poetic, its characters (especially Nora) are fleshed out and unique, its dialogue is realistic and heartrending, and its situations are tragic and human. Admittedly, murder mysteries are a dime a dozen, but Berry’s work stands out because it prioritizes personal simplicity over superficial convolution; in other words, the most gripping aspect isn’t the typical whodunit chase; it’s the ways in which Nora’s simultaneous senses of loss, envy, disloyalty, and fixation make her as much a victim as a villain. If Berry can craft something this masterful right out of the gate, imagine what she’ll do next time.