The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

Listen. There’s lots of ways I could start this review. I’m going to start it with, “The Mere Wife is a retelling of Beowulf in the suburbs,” because this is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year and that’s the best elevator pitch I can offer.

The book centres on Dana Mills, an American marine who goes to fight overseas in the War on Terror. She gets captured, is executed on camera… and then wakes up 6 months later, pregnant. Scared of what might happen to her and her possibly-miracle, possibly-monster baby, she flees back to her old home at the foot of an ancient mountain. But while Dana was overseas, her old neighbourhood was bulldozed and replaced with the high class, picket-fence-and-dinner-parties suburb Herot Hall. She settles in old tunnels within the mountain instead, content to raise her son, Gren, quietly within those confines. Gren, on the other hand, is not content. And thus Dana’s world and the world of Herot Hall begin to collide.

Lately I’ve stumbled across a few “feminist retellings” of older, male-centric works. I’m not sure if it’s a current trend in SFF or if I just got lucky, but either way I am into it. I’m unfortunately far less familiar with Beowulf than I was with Circe‘s myths, but oh did it draw me in every bit as strongly. In the original (Wiki tells me), the warrior Beowulf slays the monster Grendel and then his mother — referred to only as ‘Grendel’s mother’ — seeks revenge on Beowulf and is slain by him as well. In act 3, Bewoulf also kills a dragon. In this reinterpretation, the focus is on both “monster” and mother, offering a different reasoning for their actions and not necessarily the same fate.

But the focus is equally on Willa, the seemingly perfect hostess of Herot Hall, and her young son Dylan. The Mere Wife is a book about parallels and opposites. For both women, their opposite is the invader, the “other”. For both boys, their opposite is something to be curious about, to want to get to know. While Dana, with her fierceness and protective love, was my favourite, I equally enjoyed all the characters. All of them are flawed and the motivations of even the most flawed are understandable. (Yes, I promise Beowulf himself shows up eventually.)

The book explores other themes too. The effects of war trauma. Gated communities and gentrification. Love across boundaries. A parent’s desire to protect vs a child’s desire to explore. The price of power for the “women behind the throne”. A mother’s terror when her son looks different enough to be targeted. At the core of each of these struggles remains the division between “one of us” and “the dangerous them”, something that frankly feels very current and relevant today.

The duality is also seen in the fantastical elements of the book. In terms of genre I think it’s best put as “magical realism”. You can take everything as presented — Gren is an inhuman monster; Dana came back to life; Act 3, like the original, features a dragon. You can equally take it as a soldier suffering from brutal PTSD. I’m still not sure which reading I prefer. Both, in parallel, I suppose.

This uncertainty is further heightened by the absolutely gorgeous writing. Is it a metaphor or is it something fantastical? The book feels almost poetic, very fitting for a modernisation of an ancient saga. I particularly loved the interludes from the perspective of several “Greek choruses”, from the spirits/natural inhabitants of the mountain to the pack of mothers/grandmothers of Herot Hall. The excellent audiobook version, narrated by Susan Bennett, also enhances the poetry-like prose.

So. The next step for me will probably be to turn to the beautiful Beowulf that’s currently collecting dust on my parent’s shelf. The next step for you, I very much hope, will be to turn to the first chapter of The Mere Wife:

The hall loomed golden towers antler-tipped; it was asking for burning, but that hadn’t happened yet. You know how it is: Every castle wants invading, and every family has enemies born within it. Old grudges boil up. Listen.

I especially recommend this book for:

  • Fans of mythological retellings
  • Magical realism fans
  • “Literary fantasy” fans
  • But ones who enjoy the occasional fast-paced action scenes amidst thematic exploration of the human condition. Look, this is based on a story that has three epic, badass battles after all.
  • People interested in female warriors, after the war
  • Fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe
  • People interested in explorations of the “other”
  • English lit students who want to raise their hand in Beowulf 101 next Autumn and go, “Um excuse me professor, but “aglæcwif” can also mean “woman-warrior”, not just “monstrous hell bride”; in fact I read this interesting book this summer about…”

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