Review: ‘The Mere Wife’ explores ‘Beowulf’ in the suburbs
“The Mere Wife” (MCD and Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Maria Dahvana Headley
Maria Dahvana Headley’s new novel, “The Mere Wife,” is much more than a simple recasting of the ancient epic poem “Beowulf” in the suburbs. It’s “The Stepford Wives,” 9/11 and English class thrown into a lyrical blender, and it’s kind of glorious.
For those who forgot the poem immediately after high school, “Beowulf” is the Anglo-Saxon classic about a warrior who saves a kingdom first from the monster Grendel, then Grendel’s mother and then a dragon.
Headley, who also is working on a new translation of “Beowulf,” subverts the epic by exploring its good-versus-evil battle from the perspective of women who were largely left on the margins by the ancient bards.
Grendel’s mother even gets a name: Dana Mills, a former soldier from the wrong side of the tracks exiled to a mountain. When her son Gren crosses paths with the prince of a nearby gated community, she encounters a formidable foe in suburban ice queen Willa Herot.
The hero is supposed to be local police officer Ben Woolf. The bards already covered his heroics, so Headley cleverly reflects on his shortcomings. He’s no match for his wife’s ambitious mother, let alone Gren’s overprotective mom.
Gren and Dana threaten Willa’s routine, her low-carb diet and her tasteful decor. But are they really monsters? It’s hard to tell when everyone ends up covered in blood.
You don’t have to remember “Beowulf” to get what Headley is saying here: a monster lives in every mirror, and every enemy is someone else’s hero.