Review by Alexander Pyles
Few stories published today feel as mythical as Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife. Not only does it tell an intimate tale of mothers struggling against one another and their sons, but it is a tale brought out from the fecund ground of one of the oldest tales in the world, Beowulf.
Calling Headley’s work a retelling does it short shrift. It is a reimagining of the classic poem into a modern lens. It is also a tale of haves and have-nots, of families and outsiders, of loss and love. The story’s setting is in a microcosm of civilization: suburbia. This slice of suburban life is named Herot Hall, and it is the archetype of American living. White picket fences, impeccably manicured lawns, the works. Neighbors gossip and everyone is judged by who wears what at what function.
Willa, whose husband is the heir to Herot Hall, enjoys everything life has to offer. She goes from dinners to cocktail hours to school events with her son, Dylan, close at her heels. Everything is as it should be. A mountain looms over Herot Hall and our second mother, Dana Mills, looks on. She is a post 9/11 war veteran, one that has lost her entire team and an eye from conflict. She and her son, Gren, live together in the caves that honeycomb the mountain and house the mere, that also feeds Herot Hall. Dana never thought to be a mother. She awoke one day and found Gren.
He was hers, and she was his, as simple as that. The problem is that Gren is unaware of the invisible and unspoke barriers that are between him and the rest of the world. Going against all of this, he visits Herot Hall and befriends Dylan. It is this intersection that neither woman’s world will be the same.
Headley has written a novel that does everything a book should, but does the extra work with creating a brand new translation of an old story. Her diction and prose are written in a way to evoke the Old English story, even using a few words from the old dialect. She still manages to write in a way that makes the most basic activity, like getting ready for a party, seem like a call for banners. It is this real wrinkle in the narrative that makes the modernization so believable, making this much more than only a rehashing of the original tale.
Headley elevates the quiet calm of suburbia by her use of language. Her command of prose and point of view is impressive by any measure, and makes a story that is utterly readable and impactful.
Her use of the word “mere” not only serves to describe one of the framing devices of the novel but defines her two main characters: Willa and Dana. Both of them are mere women, yet by story’s end, both have wreaked havoc upon so many people.
The content does not shy away from modern problems or the current events that continue to rock society from day in and day out. The excess of Herot Hall is brought out in the prose to an almost satirical degree, especially when compared to the scrounging that Dana and Gren must do to survive. The pair is for all intents and purposes the monsters of the original, but here they are cast for more than sympathy. They are instead transformed into outsiders, aliens, strangers. Dana is a forgotten, broken woman who cannot make sense of the world’s past sins against her. She has no one, and she does not need anyone, except for her son. Gren is a boy struggling to understand the world around him, despite that the world wasn’t meant to contain him.
He was an accident, a surprise spark in the dark, and one that will not go quietly. It’s unforgettable that the women, not the titular hero of the original story, are the focus of The Mere Wife . Women drive this novel from start to finish. It is Willa, Dana and the matriarchs of Herot Hall who make the story what it is. Their conflicts and their actions are what shapes the story. The novel does share the legacy of Beowulf; none of these women are perfect. All are wounded, all are selfish, all are human – and it makes this story even more relevant.
The Mere Wife is a tour de force that blends bits of magical realism and thriller-esque elements bound with literary flair to create a mythic masterpiece. A reader of literary works or urban fantasy would enjoy this, especially if they are a fan of novels that deal with hard issues head-on. Fans of Beowulf should be encouraged to take a step into this reinterpretation and revel in the new forms the old characters take. Headley is not only at the height of her talent but clearly shows that there can be more done with old ideas than any of us could dare hope.