Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. /
  3. Books
  4. /
7 November 2018

Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife is a pleasingly weird modern take on Beowulf

The novel is not a retelling of that great old tale, but rather a playful reconsideration, an invitation to look at its characters from a different perspective.

By Erica Wagner

Ben Woolf was in the army, once; now he’s a policeman, the kind with a cushy job, patrolling a wealthy, gated community somewhere in the United States. He was in a war somewhere, once, as was the woman he now discovers is his enemy. She is another damaged former soldier, but one who came back from that somewhere war with a burden she came to love, a boy with strange golden eyes. “He’s all bones and angles. He has long lashes, like black feathers. He’s almost as tall as I am and he’s only seven. To me, he looks like my son. To everyone else? I don’t know. A wonder? A danger? A boy? A boy with brown skin?”

The boy’s name is Gren; he and his mother hide out on the mountain that backs on to a gathering of fancy new houses known collectively as Herot Hall. The names and themes in Maria Dahvana Headley’s pleasingly weird novel echo those found in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, in which the eponymous hero comes to save the noble inhabitants of Heorot hall, its king Hrothgar, his wife Wealtheow, from the ravages of the monster Grendel – and those of his terrifying mother.

The Mere Wife is not a retelling of that great old tale, but rather a playful reconsideration, an invitation to look at its characters from a different perspective. It is a reminder that stories survive through the centuries because – however antiquated they seem on the surface – they hold meaning that never dims.

It’s all to the good that Headley plays fast and loose with Beowulf’s narrative; her title alone is evidence of her slippery agility. For here two mothers stand in opposition to each other, transforming an Anglo-Saxon boy’s-own tale into a story centred around its women. Gren’s soldier mother is called Dana Mills; she is drawn out from hiding when Gren – not out of any monstrous instinct but out of a simple child’s desire for companionship – sneaks into the home of Roger and Willa Herot to play in secret with their son, Dylan. They form a bond that will have profound consequences as the novel progresses.

Willa (her name chiming with Wealtheow’s) is the queen bee of her enclosed community – or is she? She is imprisoned in a way that perhaps recalls Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale: while it may appear that her fate is chosen, it’s hard to escape the sense that it has been imposed. She is one of a group of mothers who “count calories like kills”, wealthy women who struggle to fill their days: “three have become karate black belts out of boredom.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Violence is always underneath the surface, and the mere wife – Willa, defined by her marriage to Roger – is set against the mere (as in lake) wife Dana, who hides in the watery underground beneath the mountain, a direct link to the eerie lake in the old poem. To which woman does the title refer? The author doesn’t want you to know as she builds a suspenseful story of chase and counter-chase, of power exercised through brutality and sex. She digs into the mystery of Beowulf not to resolve it but to expand it. The first word of Beowulf is, famously, hwæt – interpreted variously through the ages as “Listen!” or “Hark!” and by Seamus Heaney as a deadpan “So”. Each of the novel’s sections begins with a different interpretation of that opening exclamation: “Now” is Headley’s final choice for an ending that is also a mythic, triumphant beginning.

Headley refuses the simplistic arguments of hero or heroine versus villain. Her characters are victims of circumstance: but some circumstances are far worse than others. That boy with brown skin recalls many other boys who, in Headley’s native US, have found themselves victims of brutal circumstance: the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice – African-Americans who died needlessly in confrontation with police – haunt this novel. Dana looks at Gren and sees what the world sees: “Out there, I know it, my son running down a street would be my son confessing to a crime.” Violence arises out of the assumption of violence: who is responsible for the making of a monster? 

The Mere Wife
Maria Dahvana Headley
Scribe, 320pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 07 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state