The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
Publisher – Scribe
Published – Out Now
Price - £5.69 (Kindle Ebook)
Two mothers – a suburban housewife and a battle-hardened veteran – struggle to protect those they love in this modern retelling of Beowulf. From the perspective of those who live in Herot Hall, the suburb is a paradise. Picket fences divide buildings – high and gabled – and the community is entirely self-sustaining. Each house has its own fireplace, each fireplace is fitted with a container of lighter fluid, and outside – in lawns and on playgrounds – wildflowers seed themselves in neat rows... But for those who live secretly along its periphery, Herot hall is a fortress guarded by an immense network of gates, surveillance cameras and motion-activated lights.
Dylan and Gren live on opposite sides of the perimeter, neither boy aware of the barriers erected to keep them apart. Fir Dylan and his mother, Willa, life moves at a charmingly slow pace. They flit between mothers’ groups, playdates, cocktail hours and dinner parties. Gren lives with his mother, Dana, just outside the limits of Herot Hall. A former solider, Dana didn’t want Gren, didn’t plan Gren and doesn’t know how she got Gren, but when she returned from the war, there he was. When Gren, unaware of the borders erected to keep him ay bay, ventures into Herot Hall and runs off with Dylan, Dana’s and Willa’s worlds collide.
There is an interesting theme developing of ancient tales being revisited this year (Circe is also in the imminent TBR). These retellings give us an opportunity to look at the epic with new eyes particularly in their examination of the role of women and to see if these stories still resonate for today’s audiences even if in a different way. In this reworking of Beowulf transferred to the modern US and with a focus on the mothers Maria Dahvana Headley does both brilliantly with a story that talks about fear, desire and love.
Dana was a US solider kidnapped and apparently taped being executed but six months later she is found severely injured and pregnant with no memories of what happened. She eventually flees her base and her suspicious bosses; finally returning to her old childhood home which in the intervening years has been turned into an elite village town for the super wealthy. Dana hides in the mountains where she has her unusually large, fast and strong child Gren, who himself wonders at what life down in the village would be like. In parallel, Willa the husband of the most powerful man in the village lives a life totally focused on her goals and any desire to deviate from the path of a successful woman is being fought by her amazing will, power and the ambition of her own mother which she is trying to instil in her own child Dyl. Unfortunately, both mothers find their children are less bothered with their aims to hide/succeed and their growing friendship over the years creates an epic and tragic battle for survival.
It sounds such a simple tale two very different mothers fighting for their place in the world and their children coming together but this was a spellbinding read. A key component of this is Headley’s writing – this is an amazingly well-crafted tale. Each character, scene and line make the world clearer to the reader; from the gilded but ultra-desirable prison that Willa wants to rule; how Ben Wolf (yes!!) lies about his age and constantly trains in a place with no real danger and Gren’s toy dolls made of bone. Each little scene tells you more and about who these people are and the inevitable confrontations that are about to erupt. I found the portrayal of Willa one of the most powerful she completely on the surface a professional housewife all polished and poised but inside so much rage at her loved ones and a desire to go outside her boundaries even if that is simply licking ice cream from a tub in a shop freezer a lot of her later actions are inexcusable but you do understand what drove her to these actions as much a prisoner of circumstance as Dana. In contrast Dana in the mountain depths appears the more personable and one of the book’s narrators but a very closed down person keen not to re-engage with the world but her devotion to Gren as well as concerns over his growing up and wandering down to the village will lead to.
You may be thinking so far this sounds fine but where is the magic? The story has a mythic quality some of which is achieved using mysterious figures such as a homeless woman telling Dana’s fortune and a floating saint with a burning heart that trails Dana at key moments. But we also get stranger narrators in the Mere and the Hall who see the characters as parts in an ongoing story of their own. It makes the tale feel older than its modern trappings plus provide us with a sense that all our characters are trapped in some supernatural end game no one can bow out of. Reality is being played with and a child can become a monster or a loved one a beast and even the reader isn’t too sure what is real at some points.
This was a spontaneous Christmas day read while awaiting the dinner to be cooked and then I came back to it and back to it and by the morning of Boxing day was finished. It was an immersive read that I need to see what the finale would do and the women this story swirl around are standout characters you want to understand. One of my favourites this year and I think if you enjoy the mythic part of fantasy you would really love this.