Sylvia Plath’s grave sits atop a very steep hill in the English village of Heptonstall. Plath’s gravestone records her name as “Sylvia Plath Hughes”. The “Hughes” lettering appears noticeably duller, as if scratched away by inkless pens or keys. And this is precisely the case. Every year packs of visitors, usually women, make the pilgrimage to Heptonstall to pay tribute to Plath and to desecrate the name of the man who is known to have desecrated her. Improvised awls lie around the grave.
Mandy Beaumont’s debut novel, The Furies, begins with a quotation from Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” – “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air” – which sets the tone for the narrative to come. Set in rural Queensland, The Furies is a suffocating, violent, relentless novel about the ways in which men hurt women and how womankind might avenge our fallen: the Furies of Greek mythology come hurtling into the present. It is a humourless book, a book that refuses the comfort or break of levity. If you can endure it, however, it stays with you, like the smell of a campfire you can’t wash out.
The protagonist, Cyn, is grieving in different ways for her dead sister and for her mother. Cyn works in an abattoir, and the visceral claw of blade in carcass is an apt metaphor for how Cyn is treated – raped, dunked in blood, sneered at – by her male colleagues.
Beaumont’s prose shines when she observes the weakness of her male characters, the smallness of how they imagine their lives. In a portion of the novel narrated by Cyn’s mother, she says of men who compare women to birds, “Fuck me, Cyn, it’s like these fuckers always have to call us women something we aren’t, don’t they?”
The prose is fragmented, staccato, sentences ending and replaying where words strike a chord. Some readers might find this hard to take. Nevertheless a momentum is building, a call to women to rise up and revolt.
Cyn’s mother heard the voices of women, and that drove her to senseless violence. Cyn also hears the voices, but she determines to join with them as allies. Slowly, slowly, Cyn prepares to harness the might of the women she hears, these women who run through her head and wield the wind. The final scene is a call to arms and to solidarity, transmuting Plath’s singular into the collective: “Cyn, together, we eat men like air.”
Hachette, 272pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "The Furies, Mandy Beaumont".
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