Maria Dahvana Headley updates the Old English epic into a moving 21st-century novel
In a mountain above a town lived a monster and his mother. In a mountain above a town lived a monster and her son. Which is true? Both statements or neither? Perhaps the real monsters were down in the town the whole time. Those are some of the questions posed by Maria Dahvana Headley in The Mere Wife, her superb new retelling of Beowulf in American suburbia.
You don’t have to have studied Old English (I didn’t) or even have a passing knowledge of the Beowulf story (I do, just about) to appreciate Headley’s book, but it does enhance the reading if you’re aware that in the 1,000-year-old epic, a monster called Grendel attacks a settlement called Heorot. A warrior called Beowulf announces that he will defeat Grendel, and although the creature’s skin can’t be pierced, Beowulf kills it by tearing off its arm. However, Grendel’s mother soon turns up, bent on revenge. She’s eventually killed in her lair under a lake, but Beowulf doesn’t live happily ever after, being killed himself by a dragon.
Headley’s story focuses on a woman called Dana Mills, a veteran of an American war in a desert country, where she was kidnapped and supposedly beheaded on camera. She turns up alive and pregnant several months later, with no memory of what has happened to her. She manages to escape the military and makes her way to her family home, a dilapidated mountain lake resort town which has been torn down and transformed into an elite gated community called Herot Hall.
Dana gives birth to her son alone, and creates a home in the ruined train station in the mountain. She names her boy Gren, and she knows he is special. The duo live by foraging and hunting in the land that was once worked by her ancestors. But it’s not enough for Gren, and when he ventures down to Herot Hall and befriends a boy called Dylan Herot, whose family founded the community, Dana knows everything is going to change. Dylan’s mother, Willa, becomes convinced there is a monster in the mountain and, when a violent death occurs, a policeman called Ben Woolf arrives to become “the hero who saves Herot Hall”. But Dana will be waiting for him. “I call death,” she says, “onto those who don’t know a child when they see a child.”
Is Gren really a monster? We see the damage wrought by his claws in the Herot’s home, and it seems he scratched their piano after seeing himself in a mirror. But as the book progresses, it’s suggested that Gren is only a monster in the eyes of those prepared to see him that way. “His eyes are gold,” says Dana. “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? Any of those things will make him a target.”
While following the basic beats of the original, Headley manages to create real suspense as Dana’s quest to keep her son safe clashes first with his desire for freedom and then with Ben Woolf’s desire to maintain his reputation by destroying both of them forever. The compelling story is enhanced by a writer revelling in the power of language and the possibilities of narrative. Although Dana narrates most of the novel, the perspective switches between her first-person voice and the views of Willa, of the older women who rule Herot Hall’s society, of the old creatures who still inhabit the depths of the underground water and even of the dogs who are sent out to track Gren and Dana.
The book is divided into sections entitled “Hark”, “What”, “So”, “Sing” and more – each subsection begins with the title word, allowing Headley’s writing to bounce off the word in unexpected directions. Her prose is an exhilarating mixture of darkness and fire, striking the perfect balance between sparse and startlingly vivid. Even its title is a play on words – the mere wife could be Willa Herot, whose domestic goddess facade conceals darkness and rage, or it could be Dana, who lives with the mere, the lake by the mountain that has protected her for over a decade.
But the book isn’t based on literary tricks. There’s real heart in The Mere Wife; even in its most shocking, bloody moments, it’s ultimately the moving story of one woman’s desire to protect her child, and of that child’s yearning for connection. With its themes of gentrification, racism, parental love, class displacement and post-traumatic stress disorder, the story of Dana and Gren and Dylan and Willa and Ben is a very 21st-century one. But its roots are coiled deep in the old earth and the dark water, the place that nightmares come from, and dreams too.