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The Mere Wife

January 30, 2023

The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley, is a retelling of Beowulf that starts out from the point of view of Grendel’s mother, who is in this case a former US soldier named Dana, a lost and damaged veteran of an unspecified war in the middle east.

Dana says she “got lost. All of us got sent to the wrong country, and everyone but me is dead. Now I think all countries are the wrong country.” When she arrives back in the US, she is pregnant—it’s not clear by who or how, and there’s a suggestion that she might have been raped by captors—and she escapes from a hospital to go home to the mountain where she grew up, saying “I left this place forever, but forever is over.” She has her baby alone, in an abandoned train station that has been forgotten under the mountain, and she names him Gren. It’s not clear whether Gren looks like other babies; we learn that “he’s born with teeth” and that “all the other things that have been born here rise silently in the water of the mere to listen with him, toothed, clawed, each with its own ridge of spiny gleam.” It’s clear that “his mother looks at him, her face uncertain,” because she has been so damaged by her experience, because he looks like her captors, and because she sees him as heir to an underground kingdom beneath where his ancestors lived and died.

The dreaminess of the way the tale is told suited my mood in the last week, as I’m still trying to recover from the effects of the Covid I came down with on Dec. 22; a sinus infection has set in, and it’s made me almost entirely unable to hear, so everything has been feeling very muffled and dreamy already.

The second point of view in the novel is introduced with a less dreamy tone, although the tone re-emerges later. It comes from a suburban housewife named Willa who has a seven-year-old son named Dylan who she calls “Dil.” We learn that seven years have passed, and that Willa thinks “children are monsters, but there are ways to work around them.” The suburb is called Herot Hall and Willa knows that it “replaced the town that was here before, falling down since the railroad stopped running this line.” Her mother has arranged Willa’s marriage to “the heir to Herot Hall…he’s of noble family.” We learn that “now Dylan’s in school, and Willa has her days free, to do what? She hasn’t found whatever it is. There must be a solution, but at present she does Pilates, and then sits in the kitchen, looking out over her domain, feeling faintly something.”

Gren and Dylan keep observing and hearing each other, until eventually “a boy emerges from a crack in the mountainside” and “he’s at the back of a house full of windows, tapping on the glass” and “the boy on the inside slides the door open….They are known to each other, not strangers.” Willa sees Gren as a monster, thinking “there’s a whole world filled with monsters.” Dana thinks of Willa and her neighbors as interlopers who build their “mini-mansions on top of a graveyard” where Dana’s ancestors are buried.

Willa gets help defending what she thinks is hers from a group of women who wield the real power in their suburb:
“We’re commuter wives. These are our commuter lives. We’re capable of carrying alcoholic husbands from the kitchen to the bedroom in a fireman’s grip. Between trains, we train to fight with enemies we haven’t met yet, battling against punching bags, leaping like the world is made of stone walls and we’re storming them.”
There are real consequences for their attempts to wall themselves off from anything they deem dangerous, but the women don’t see it, tied up in their own little world of offspring and infidelities. After Willa’s husband has died, she invites “the woman from the cell phone photos” she found “over for a cup of tea”:
“Mere water, mountain herbs in it, and later, in an upstairs bathroom in her own house, the other woman bleeds until the heir she carried is gone.”

Willa meets the policeman who she thinks will keep her safe in a local bar, where “the wall behind the bar is postcarded with fifty years of peeling waterfalls, curled corners.” (I like “postcarded” as a verb.) She brings him home to Herot Hall and makes him promise to kill Dana and Gren, knowing that they are people, telling him “it wasn’t a bear…it was wearing clothes.”

Gren and Dylan keep finding each other until they’re adolescents and have fallen in love. Dana sees that Gren is “done being my baby, and now he wants to be in the world.” She reflects that a child “might have twelve years of safety, maybe less.” She realizes that “when I see him pass me in the dark, down a passage, or in the woods, he looks like a boy. He’s not a man yet. That won’t stop anything from happening to him.” I remember when I realized that my son was starting to look like a man to other people, like a threat. Probably any mother of sons does.

Willa eventually realizes that the policeman she’s married can’t keep her safe, and the other wives say they always knew “that monsters are everywhere.” They say they wanted to be like Dana, “warriors with our swords, killing everyone who gets in our way, even as we know we wouldn’t really be her. We’d hunt her, a pack of well-preserved women in boots, with our dogs and guns chasing her through the mountain. Well-preserved. Oh, we hate that phrase. Are we pickles or are we jam? Are we sour or are we sweet?” They say they know that “the flip side of hero is monster.”

The ending ties the very different points of view together, with a character we were introduced to but didn’t pay much attention to before pointing out that “the story is all of the voices, not just the voice of the one who tells it at the end.”

It’s an interesting retelling. I found the picture of the “commuter wives” too generalized to be very alarming and the characterization of Dana as an outsider to their world too extreme to draw many conclusions about, but I enjoyed seeing how the tale played out in Headley’s imagined modern world.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. maggie permalink
    January 30, 2023 11:13 am

    I liked that book – I found it rather exhilarating. Dream-like and shape-shifting.

    And I plucked this quote out for safekeeping:
    “We are a white deer and we are a black raven and we are blood in the snow. We are a sword made of old metal and we are a gun filled with old bullets and we are a woman standing before her mother’s bones, holding her family treasure, broken.” (p 243)

    • February 1, 2023 10:47 am

      That’s an interesting quotation to illustrate the dreaminess and yes, the shape-shifting.
      I found the chalice (the “family treasure”) that had belonged to Dana’s mother a slightly clumsy inclusion in the novel.

  2. January 30, 2023 4:43 pm

    I enjoyed this book too. She published an actual translation of Beowulf a couple years ago in modern language and I found her choices quite interesting, but it all worked for me and I ended up really liking it.

    • February 1, 2023 10:44 am

      I think I’m going to have to try reading her translation now!

      • February 2, 2023 11:46 am

        I will be curious to see what you make of it if you read it!

  3. January 31, 2023 6:52 am

    I still haven’t read proper Beowulf — I’ve never read the whole thing, and I haven’t even read excerpts since senior year of high school. Have you read Headley’s translation of it? I own it so I just need to circle back around to it.

    • February 1, 2023 10:41 am

      I have not read Headley’s translation, although I’m considering it now. I read Alexander’s translation for Penguin Books at some point and loved John Gardner’s novel Grendel enough to read some of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf when it came out. My husband and daughter (a medievalist) are of course fascinated by the variations of the tale and we all watched the 1999 movie The Thirteenth Warrior, which we recommend as a hilariously over-the-top version.

  4. February 1, 2023 7:03 am

    I was sick in December, and now am sick again, so I know what you mean about feeling muffled and apart. I have never read Beowulf!

    • February 1, 2023 10:44 am

      Maybe this is the time! I’m a believer in seizing the right moment for reading a particular kind of book.

  5. February 1, 2023 10:07 am

    I, too, loved Headley’s Beowulf translation, which I believe will be much-taught, so it is interesting to hear about the novel that inspired her to tackle it. I was wondering.

    • February 1, 2023 10:42 am

      I think I’m going to have to at least dip into Headley’s translation now!

  6. February 1, 2023 8:22 pm

    I haven’t read The Mere Wife, but I did read her translation of Beowulf. When I first heard another version was being published I thought “why? We already have Seamus Heaney’s translation.” Then I heard that her choice for the first word was “Bro” and I cackled out loud and immediately bought 3 copies for myself, my sister, and our dear friend. I found it very entertaining.

    • February 2, 2023 9:57 am

      Good to hear! I also remember being intrigued by reviews that mentioned the first word.

  7. February 3, 2023 8:47 am

    My 14yo has a man’s height and though not likely *his* grown-man breadth, enough shoulder and chest width to need men’s clothes. He sings baritone. Anyone not seeing his soft proto-mustached face could mistake him for a man. It’s disconcerting and a little scary, yes. No one is ever as special to the rest of the world as they are to their family (ok, I know that’s not true–some people don’t have loving families and have to build them later), but at least early childhood carries with it a layer of fluffy down “I’m harmless, won’t you be patient with me” insulation. And then, one day–poof! The dandelion fluff has all blown away, and your kiddo is out in the field, tall and exposed.

    • February 3, 2023 10:20 am

      Yes. And sons who have darker skin have to learn this earlier.

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