The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley. MCD Books, 2018. 320pp, fiction.

Monsters. The original Beowulf epic has a few. However, though Grendel and his dam are both portrayed as literal monsters in the poem (“God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping,” “the bane of the race of men,” “the hell-dam”), it is perhaps what they do that makes them truly awful. Grendel, after all, cannot stand the merry noise coming from Heorot — the noise itself is the result of the culture-appropriate goings-on between a king and his men — and responds by killing and maiming. The dam, for her part, turns entrenched Anglo-Saxon gender roles of woman as peacemaker on their head and avenges her son’s death.

As scholar Jane Chance explains, “It is monstrous for a mother to ‘avenge’ her son as if she were a retainer , he were her lord, and avenging more important than peace-making.” In fact, peace-making (and keeping) may be the most important point of all. In carrying on as they do, both Grendel and his dam destroy the near-sacred peace of the king’s hall. More particularly, in doing so, they each break Germanic social contracts that would have been familiar to the poem’s original Anglo-Saxon audience. Real monsters.

The monstrous abounds in The Mere Wife as well, Maria Dahvana Headley’s retelling of the Beowulf epic. Set in Herot Hall, an affluent suburban housing development (built, by the way, on land stolen from its original inhabitants), and in a nearby mountain cave (replete with mere) that once housed a train station, The Mere Wife follows the basic narrative arc of the original Beowulf but at the same time revises the epic into a women-centered story. The titular role is played by Dana Mills, a traumatized military veteran who was once captured by the enemy during a desert war. She cannot remember much at all about her ordeal, including how she became pregnant with her son, Gren. But that does not mean she loves him less. In fact, it is in great part Dana Mills’ fierce, maternal love for her son that drives a good part of the action of the book and, in Headley’s able hands, shines a light on what motivates beholders to consider whom or what they see to be monstrous.

Considerations of the monstrous are indeed one of the many reasons the Beowulf epic remains relevant to our day. (For a few more, see my Twitter thread on the subject.) Because Gren is only a monster in the eye of a certain sort of beholder. When the affluent, white residents of Herot Hall cast eyes upon him, he possesses the actual, downright threathening physical characteristics of a monster. To Willa Herot, one of the wealthy inhabitants whose son, Dilly, has befriended Gren, the essentially homeless boy from the mountain is a dangerous other. For example, “[She] feels the creature rising, horns and claws, a tail lashing, making its way through spotlight and shadow.” In other words, full-on Grendel.

But to his mother, Gren is always Gren. Just who he is. A brown boy worthy of protection and love, whose forays into Herot Hall she fears precisely because he is brown. To Dana Mills, “[Gren] looks like my son. To everyone else? I don’t know. A wonder? A danger? A boy? A boy with brown skin? Any of those things will make him a target. I know this world. I’ve been in it.” Dana Mills understands, perhaps more than any other character in the book, how the monstrous truly works. In our modern parlance, she is the mother who has to worry not just about the un- or fully conscious biases of the BBQ Bettys and Permit Pattys of the world, but also, unfortunately, about much, much more than that. Because Gren and Dana Mills also have to contend with the Beowulf figure in this book. And suitably enough, Ben Woolf is a (predictably white) cop.

It should not escape our notice that it used to be common to refer to the police as peace officers. And, indeed, it is Ben Woolf’s job to secure peace for the wealthy residents of Herot Hall. But as Headley portrays it, that peace was only ever superficial at best. There is rot beneath the surface and eventually the cracks begin to show. That Ben Woolf, in the end, does very little to keep the peace and indeed that the peace in Herot Hall is predicated on denying anyone or any feeling that does not conform to its strictures is one of the ways the book turns the idea of the monstrous on its head. In the end, Headley tells us, Gren is just a boy. It might be the rest of us who are monsters. As Headley writes, “Monsters. Some people believe they’re unusual. Others know that monsters are everywhere.”

Told through multiple perspectives, The Mere Wife consistently elevates the novel to epic and always remembers that its source material is an Anglo-Saxon poem. Headley’s language is reminiscent of the thrust and rhythm of the best Beowulf translations. (“[We] are the wilderness, the hidden river, the stone caves. We are the snakes and songbirds, the storm water, the brightness beneath the darkest pools.” “We are the birds and the rainfall, the storms and the stars, and all of us are named, and all of us are numbered.”)

Sometimes the voices telling the story rise together in a dramatic chorus, as when the older women who hold a tight reign on the restrictive social norms of Herot Hall speak as one. At other times, for example, when Willa Herot makes herself heard, the focus is on the anger and resentment women often have to swallow in order to fulfill the stereotype of the good wife. But it is Dana Mills who is the beating heart of this story.

And as a woman, veteran, quasi-homeless person, and mother who sees her son for the precious human being he really is, she is also its moral heart. It is through her eyes that the reader looks both at Gren and themselves in a mirror. And though what each reader sees in that mirror may be different, depending on who they are, the exercise is a worthy one. Highly recommended.