Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow Pushes Readers to Examine Their Own Feminist Failings

Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow begins in classic fashion for a thriller—one character is traveling to meet another. The character traveling eventually becomes the amateur detective and the narrator of the story, the character awaiting the visit ultimately the victim. This novel has been praised both for its taut writing and propulsive plot. Despite the lauding this debut received, I was surprised that none of the reviews I encountered addressed the feminism embedded in Berry’s writing. Reading Under the Harrow was for me not just an opportunity to sink myself into a compelling story. It was also a chance to consider my own part as a reader in abetting the worn feminine tropes Berry so artfully lays waste to through her novel.

Under the Harrow centers around the story of two sisters, Rachel and Nora. One murdered and the other mourning. Or is she? Nora’s flashbacks of time spent with Rachel are woven throughout the story, and they alternate between exemplifying their intimate sisterly bond and implying a malignant subtext to that intimacy. Perhaps not surprisingly, in my reading I began to question the valence of Nora’s devotion to her sister. Even the remembrances that present as rosy and bucolic on the surface—cooking at their seaside vacation cottage or playing fetch with Rachel’s dog—are tinged with hints of obsession.

“We ate dinner together every night in Cornwall and had an endless number of things to say. She was my favorite person to talk with, because what caught her attention caught mine too. Rachel cooked and I did the shopping, which I didn’t mind. . . I was starving. We both were, all the time.”

Nora seems to observe her sister too fully, too passionately. These clues suggest at first that the story of Under the Harrow is not that complex at all. It’s simply another example of the sisterhood, both literally and figuratively, attacking itself from the inside; an affirmation that women hate each other more than they can ever love each other. But of course, that proves to not be the case. When it became clear that I was wrong in following those clues, I felt nothing if not gullible for having fallen for such a predictable and misogynistic explanation.

The characters of Rachel and Nora each represent archetypes of traditional femme fatales. Berry encourages readers to think that Nora’s grip on reality is loosening, making her a danger to herself and others. Nora seems to be imagining events–or at least misremembering them. In one scene, she describes a detective she befriends hugging her, kissing her, and then leaving. Later, it’s revealed that she slept with him that evening, but does not remember it.

We learn that she took psychotropic medication and saw a therapist. It’s revealed that Nora was depressed for a period after her last relationship ended. Berry tells us that Nora sometimes couldn’t distinguish what happened to her from what happened to Rachel, they were so close. Nora begins to carry a straight razor with her at all times. She stalks the man she suspects, although we are tempted to dismiss her suspicion as just another symptom of her disconnection from reality. Hints at Nora’s violent tendencies emerge; a broken ewer in the hotel, a broken nose given to Rachel. “As I put on my boots, I notice a pile of white powder beside the dresser. In it are two larger pieces, and I recognize the handle and part of the base from the pitcher that used to stand on the dresser. Sometime in the night, I must have smashed it. I don’t remember this at all. I don’t know what I used to break it.” [104]

Each detail is layered deftly into the story by Berry, urging us to think of Nora as a diagnostic label—insert the dissociative disorder of your choosing here–that both describes and explains her behavior. Berry plays at reducing Nora’s personhood into a categorical existence of “hysterical female” so that her audience will believe they’ve discovered the reason for Rachel’s murder. It’s a well-crafted trick that forced me to later confront why I’d so willingly accepted such a pat explanation: Rachel died because, well–bitches be crazy.

Finally, over the course of the novel readers see Rachel take the form of assault victim turned self-destructive slut. She sleeps with her sister’s boyfriend, has an affair with a local married man, and trails behind her a long detritus of bad boyfriends, drug use, and seeming viciousness. Berry convincingly compels us to consider whether it was Rachel’s selfishness—as embodied by her emotional cruelty and sexual indiscretions—that ultimately resulted in her being murdered.

With Rachel, Berry is clearly toying with the human failing that leads us to place guilt on victims. Although she wants us to blame Rachel for what happened to her, she also wants us to remember that she was a nurse. That she put herself through school, sent money back to her deadbeat father, and worked long shifts at the hospital and cooked for her sister, who sought sanctuary at her country home while her own life fell apart in London. Rachel is a crusader for the women victimized by other men, and in seeking out her own perpetrator also sought out the safety of women like herself.

Even Nora, after discovering Rachel’s affair with her boyfriend, must question who her sister really was:

“I have to forgive her or else sacrifice our last six months together. In a way, I don’t entirely blame her. If she wanted to switch, to see what it was like to be the other of us, the one who stayed safely at the party that night, at dinner with my boyfriend. Or she just drank too much and stopped caring. Bitch, I think, and the venom does nothing to how much I miss her.”

Distilled down, Berry’s portrayal of Rachel offers a significant nod to the eternal virgin/whore dichotomy still thrust upon women, and Berry uses it expertly to knock readers off the trail of their own detection. It’s embarrassing to admit that I found myself trying to reconcile the different faces of Rachel, apparently because I instinctively couldn’t allow Rachel to be both a home-wrecker who betrays her sister’s trust and a woman crusading for the care of those injured and victimized. Without giving away the ending, the resolution of Under the Harrow expertly weaves together this juxtaposition for the reader: angelic nurse and sluttish whore. If the tale itself weren’t so distressing in its accounting of a brutal murder, I’d say Berry was having a laugh at (or with) her readers.

Under the Harrow is an excellent thriller, but I’d also argue that it is subversive feminist commentary on the way women are portrayed, both in literature and reality. Berry provides the scaffolding for her readers to examine their own stereotypical views of feminine heroines and victims. Just when we think we’ve solved the puzzle at the heart of her novel, Berry uproots the predictable tropes she led us into and effectively holds up a mirror to our own supposedly enlightened feminism. At the end of Berry’s tale I found myself satisfied with the story’s elegant resolution, but dismayed that I was so easily misled.

Sarah K. Stephens is a developmental psychologist and a senior lecturer at Penn State University. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her short stories and essays have appeared in LitHub, The Millions, National Book Critics Circle: Critical Mass, Five on the Fifth, The Indianola Review, and (parenthetical). Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, was released in December 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing.

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