Just out in paperback, this was a novel I loved and thought deserved a lot more attention.
The Mere Wife: A Novel by Maria Dahvana Headley
Published by Picador
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Fantasy, Fiction, Literary
Maybe every monster is a miracle meant to change the world…
Author Maria Headley dives into a modern-day retelling of Beowolf beginning with its title, The Mere Wife. This is no novel about a slight wife, a minor presence, a smudge of a life. No, the women in this tale are, for better or worse, ferocious in the pursuit of their goals. They are giants of determination, drawing all eyes to them, impossible to ignore. This is the most apparent meaning of the title, but I was delighted to learn that there was even more intent in Headley’s wily mind. Mere is also an old term for a lake and one of these women is wedded to the lake that forms a physical boundary between the novel’s two very different worlds. It’s when the lake is crossed that all hell breaks loose.
Headley uses the bones of Beowolf well. She replaces the king of Heorot with a queen—Willa Herot, married to Roger Herot, scion of Herot Hall, a planned community for the wealthy. She commands Herot society with her parties, her perfect 7-year-old son Dylan and her perfect weight of 114 pounds. But while she lives in material splendor there is a woman living in the caves of a nearby mountain. Dana Mills is a soldier, who, while serving in the Middle East was videotaped being beheaded. Which she was not. She returns to the U.S., pregnant and retreats to Herot, the town where she grew up, only to find it gone and a luxury community in its place. She gives birth to her unusual son, Gren. A baby who already has teeth and grows monstrously fast. Seven years pass until Gren, out of loneliness and curiosity, leaves the mountain and finds another boy. At a home in a gated community, causing an uproar that leaves Roger Herot dead and Dylan in the cave with his new friend and Dana. And now Beowolf, Ben Woolf, police officer and soon-to-be hero, arrives on the scene. The match to the gasoline-soaked pyre of Dana, Willa, and Herot Hall.
Whew. That’s a lot of plot, right? It’s just the beginning. The Mere Wife is an origami novel where each turn of the page leads to another level. There are the literal levels within the mountain and within the society Willa wants to summit. But Headley goes much deeper, into the psyches of two women, both single-minded in their desires, but on opposite sides of the scale. Dana’s is her love for her son, while Willa’s is her adoration of herself. Just as Dana will take down anyone threatening Gren, Willa has no compunction about acting against those who stand in her way, including her son.
Dylan looks like an innocent child rather than like someone who’d purposefully ruin the life of his mother by living through the impossible.
The two are in direct conflict and it’s the pivot point which makes the novel’s plot seesaw and provides its biggest question: Who is the monster? The soldier who has killed, been ‘killed’, is living and acting like a savage or the woman hidden behind a façade of refinement and composure, for whom there is no action too extreme to reach her goals?
In case you’re worried or put off, no previous reading or understanding of Beowolf is necessary. If you know it, it provides some background, but if not, no matter because what is one of the oldest tales in English literature is transformed into a contemporary, reality show, battle of wills. The Mere Wife is a primal fable about motherhood, modern society, and the literal bulldozing of the past of the poor to make way for the future of the rich. Headley’s prose doesn’t woo or coddle. It demands attention and rewards it with the kind of reading that is difficult to put down—intense, visceral, and unforgettable.