The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley: A review

The "mere" in the title of this book can be read two ways. It can be mere as in "only" or it can refer to a geological feature, a kind of lake.

The mere (only) wife is Willa Herot, a suburban wife and mother living with her husband and son in a mansion that backs up to a mountain with a sulfurous lake at its foot. 

The mere (lake) wife is Dana Mills. Her story is more complicated. 

Dana was an American marine fighting in the war in Iraq after 9/11. Her unit was caught in a firefight where everyone was killed except for Dana. She was taken prisoner and was dragged before video cameras by her captors where she was supposedly beheaded. The video was seen around the world.

Six months later she wakes up buried in sand and six months pregnant from a sexual encounter which she does not remember. Was it rape or a consensual act? She has no idea.

She is returned to the United States where she gives birth to a son, Gren (Grendel). Scarred from war wounds, suffering from PTSD, she retreats with her son to the mountain with the sulfurous lake which is the area where she grew up and where her family lived, died, and was buried long before it became an upscale gated community.

Gren is not like other children. Here's how Dana describes him when he is seven years old: "His eyes are gold. 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 7. 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?" 

His persona is changeable. It is in the eye of the beholder and what Dana truly fears is that the beholder - society - sees a monster and will try to destroy him. 

But what Willa Herot's son, Dylan, sees is just another boy. The two are drawn to each other and become secret friends and when they run away together, their two worlds collide and each mother fights to save her son. 

Gren is an "other" but does that otherness make him a monster or does it simply make him vulnerable? After all, we are all animals so why should some be viewed as monsters? We see Gren as that changeable creature as perceived by the outside world, but we learn that what he really wants is friendship, love, connection. He may look different but he is perfectly human.

This is a tragedy older than the history of English literature. It's the story of Beowulf but retold from the perspective of two mothers and primarily the mother of the monster Grendel. Maria Dahvana Headley steeps her tale in magical realism and dark fantasy. Everything is symbol and metaphor and at any given moment, the reader (at least this reader) feels a sense of disorientation. It is hard to tell where reality ends and illusion begins - or vice versa.

The Mere Wife is an ambitious novel that explores what it is to be human and/or a monster. And, oh yes, the tale does have its Beowulf. His name is Ben Wolff and he's a policeman and a veteran like Dana but not really a hero. In fact, true heroism is in short supply here.

In the end, although I found the book confusing, it was also compelling. Loosely based on Beowulf, it still has some of the power of that ancient tale.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. This sounds like a book I would like, though my only memory of Beowulf is being forced to read it in school and not getting it at all. I don't think I could bear to read it again. Do you think that is a prerequisite to getting this novel?

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    1. Not really. I'm sure you have the gist of it in memory. If you need to refresh, that's what Wikipedia is for!

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  2. Even though you said you were confused, it seems you liked the novel a great deal. Not bad for a disorienting story. ;-)

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    1. I'm one of those strange people who actually liked Beowulf when I first encountered it in English literature class. I liked it even more when I read Seamus Heaney's translation a few years ago, so maybe some of that residual good will spilled over into this book.

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    2. I have not read Beowulf, neither in college lit class nor afterwards. :-(

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    3. If you decide to tackle it, I do recommend the Heaney translation.

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