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.

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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.”

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

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state