“… all my selves together at once, soldier, daughter, wife, victim, mother, monster.”
The Mere Wife (2018), which is up for a Locus Award this year, is billed as a “modern retelling of Beowulf.” Set in an upscale suburban housing development called Herot Hall, it follows two mothers and their sons. One of these is Willa, the wife of a wealthy plastic surgeon whose family built Herot Hall. Willa spends her days vapidly shopping, thinking about how she looks, planning parties, competing with the neighboring housewives, being coached by her own mother, and trying to defend her house and her son Dylan from any malign outside influences.
The other mother is Dana Mills, a soldier with severe PTSD who comes back to the United States pregnant with no memory of how she got that way. When she arrives home, she discovers that Herot Hall has replaced her family’s land so she moves into a cave in the mountain above the development. It contains a lake (a “mere”) and, possibly, the spirits who live there. After giving birth, Dana names her son Gren and raises him to fear the rich people who live in Herot Hall.
One day Willa and Dana’s worlds collide when Dylan and Gren meet, sparking a cascade of tragedies for both families.
I admire what Maria Dahvana Headley has done with The Mere Wife. A modern, feminized, and suburbanized retelling of Beowulf is creative and ambitious and after I brushed up on my Beowulf (it’s been a while), it was interesting to discover Headley’s allusions and contemplate the meaning of each. Some are obvious, some are subtle, some are funny, and in many places the story veers far from it influencing source.
Most obviously, The Mere Wife is about monsters (there are so many monsters in this story), power, motherhood, womanhood, community, and various forms of danger, safety, and love. We witness multiple mothers (Dana, Willa, Willa’s mother, Willa’s mother-in-law, etc.) as they teach, protect, love, guide, control, and scar their children. We see the Beowulf of Headley’s story, a nearly washed-up ex-marine, try and fail to be the hero of Herot Hall.
All of Headley’s adult characters are unlikeable — every single one — which is intentional, I’m sure, but makes it hard for me to like this novel as much as I think it deserves. Then one tragedy after another gives the story a bleak fatalistic feeling that never lets up. In fact, the entire novel is uncomfortable to read.
But The Mere Wife is beautifully written and impressively structured. One chapter is written from the perspective of the dogs that the police are using to try to track a missing character. Some chapters are written from the perspective of the older mothers, as if they are the chorus in a Greek tragedy. Macmillan Audio’s version, narrated by Susan Bennett, is fabulous. I loved her performance, especially for the dog chapter.