The Mere Wife
There is nothing insignificant about The Mere Wife. Maria Dahvana Headley’s suburban retelling of Beowulf is the story of two mothers protecting their heritage and their children. It becomes a powerful fable in its own right as it retains the important insights explored in Beowulf, plus adds a few of its own. It’s my favorite book so far this year.
Herot Hall is a glass-walled, gated community. A slice of suburban paradise inserted into the wild. Willa plays her part as the wife of Roger Herot, the heir of this surveilled and maintained development. Built at the foot of a picturesque wooded mountain, it’s a safe place to raise children, and each home is designed to host the parties that keep the social fabric of Herot Hall smooth and clean.
But under the mountain, in the network of caves surrounding an abandoned train station lurks Dana Mills. Mills is a soldier, freshly returned from combat. With her mind full of blank spaces, she hides from society, raising in secret the son she somehow carried home inside her: the monstrous, deformed Gren.
This book is awesome for the sheer weight of story it contains. I identified so strongly with this book because of the way Headley so clearly respects how stories make up our collective moralities, and yet she also unmasks them as fickle things, contingent on false memory and rumor. I felt deceived while reading, in the same way a child might feel deceived when they learn the truth about Santa Claus. It wasn’t until the end that I understood the deception was needed to help me understand the truths.
In the original, Beowulf is the deeply flawed human behind the myth of the hero. He embellishes his glory, leading to his eventual doom, and his counterpart in The Mere Wife – Sheriff Ben Wolff – follows that same arc.
Beowulf is hyper-masculine: a monster-hunting, kingdom-claiming, dragon-slaying hero. But the men in this book are roundly useless. It’s the women who remain consistent, in both their resolve and principles. The mothers and grandmothers of Herot Hall grow into one mind, narrating the story in places with the pronoun “we,” becoming a multifaceted counterpart to the monster in the mountain. Even the mothers of Roger and Willa, both individuals at the beginning of the book, are absorbed into the collective. Their bodies and smiles as maintained as their surroundings, they push their husbands and sons into the glorious spotlight, while themselves setting in motion the big plans that keep their community functioning.
‘Mere’ in the title refers to both the underground lake, on the shores of which Dana and Gren lurk, and the concept that the role of a wife has always been just that: mere, insignificant, secondary. Headley’s story pulls the often-patronized role of wife and mother and makes it mean warrior, monster, queen, strategist, and conqueror. She manages to reveal all this while also poking quiet fun at the smug suburban kingdom in which the story is set.
I felt anxious for the characters as the book progressed. I wanted them to understand each other to prevent the fighting and tragedy I knew was coming. Knowing the rough outline of the story took nothing away from the pleasure of reading, due in equal parts to Headley’s skillful symbolic manipulation of the existing story, and her incredible prose. Headley knows how to write, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a little writer’s crush on her.
For all its source material, this is not a fantasy book. Not really. There is magical realism and surrealism at times. There is a sword. But it isn’t monsters, dragons or magic that makes Beowulf a good story, and it’s the same for The Mere Wife. Headley appreciates the power of narratives in their ability to explore us, and I felt myself nodding with recognition as those truths were explored in this aggressive, beautiful book.