The Mere Wife takes on the epic poem Beowulf, reimagining the story and its ill-fated characters in suburban America. Headley's suburbia is hashtag perfect at first blush, but like many things with a nice coat of paint, is rotten with termites and mildew at its underbelly.
I started this book at my kitchen table, an antique walnut affair in our snug suburban enclave. There’s not a fence around my community like the novel’s master-planned Herot Hall, but there is a fairly stern “No Handbills” warning on the stone community sign out front. All this to say, I started the book in a neighborhood that’s not quite Herot Hall, but it’s not far off, either. You should see what my neighbors post about coyote sightings on Nextdoor and anything else deemed wild or woolly. It’s difficult to not respond that the coyotes were here first, but Headley’s The Mere Wife may just inspire me to finally do so.
Because life refuses well-laid plans, I ended up driving southbound, unexpectedly, for two days immediately after starting the novel. Knowing I faced 15 hours in a car, I checked the audio book out of the library ahead of departure. At first, I worried listening to the novel rather than reading would detract from my experience of Headley’s retelling, but then the narrator reminded me of the first chapter’s opening line: “Listen.” The word is repeated throughout the story, and it then seemed fitting that indeed, I listened.
The quick and dirty recap of the original Beowulf is that the text is an Anglo-Saxon poem, written way before Netflix was a thing, possibly shared via the oral tradition in mead halls. Beowulf is a mercenary hero, visiting Hrothgar’s Heorot Hall to help eradicate Hrothgar’s monster problem. Beowulf kills the monster, Grendel. Grendel’s momma gets mad. Beowulf kills her. Then a dragon with a stolen cup kills Beowulf fifty years later.
In Headley’s version, Beowulf is a war veteran and police officer named Ben Woolf, and he’s not even the main character; Dana Mills is. Dana Mills is also a war veteran, but after being captured in the desert and beheaded on camera, she wakes up pregnant and stumbles back to an army base where she’s doctored, tortured, sent back to the US, and escapes medical captivity to give birth inside of a mountain to her baby, a boy with golden eyes she calls Gren.
In addition to Dana, the novel follows Willa Herot, the wife of a wealthy plastic surgeon, Roger Herot, whose father built the master-planned, gated community, Herot Hall, at the base of a scenic mountain in commutable distance to the big city. Before the community could be built, though, the pesky problem of the existing community and its residents had to be taken care of. Building Herot Hall homes were, of course, “improvements,” as Willa calls it. Dana, who grew up in the demolished community, has other thoughts.
Her childhood home gone and untreated PTSD driving her decisions, Dana moves into a sealed-off commuter train station in the mountain, overlooking Herot Hall. She survives off house cats, squirrels, and nuts, raising her son in a secret, cloistered, and feral childhood.
In Headley’s version of the hero’s tale, both monster and hero are American war veterans, a reflection of how US troops are viewed today: honored as heroes while simultaneously abandoned in health and mental care, treated as potentially dangerous, and sometimes outcast for what they may or may not have done while fighting a war far from home. Monsters and heroes change places throughout the novel – unlike the source material – but in the end, no one is redeemed by their choices or offered a happy ending – just like the source material.
The mere of the title is a lake along the mountain that flows into Dana and Gren’s hideout. Mere, like many things in the story, plays two roles – both as the body of water and as a word dismissive of a woman’s role in a marriage. Willa’s role in the world she inhabits is always tenuous, based on her standing with her husband and her reputation in the eyes of the other wives.
Dana worries about appearances, too – worrying that Gren, who is half-black and half-middle eastern, will be condemned for who he is. It’s not clear if his wildness and monstrousness stem from living without hygiene and plumbing in a cave or because he is, as Dana worries, frightening to look at. Despite Dana’s worries, seven-year-old Gren does make a friend in Dylan, Willa’s son and the young heir to Herot Hall.
There’s another well-known story about a strange being with claws who lives on a mountain overlooking a serene but poisonous suburban town, who falls in love with the beautiful child of one of the suburban families: Edward Scissorhands. I picture Willa and her mother’s friends (Willa doesn’t seem to have any of her own) like the ladies of Tim Burton’s Easter-egg colored suburban nightmare, but with the added pressures of Pinterest and Instagram.
In Edward Scissorhands and The Mere Wife, the named-monster is, of course, not the monster, and the least monstrous beings in both are the children. Both of their parents want to protect them: Dylan’s parents from anything unruly and wild, and Gren’s mom from the judgement and pitchforks of civilized society, a society that sent her and her fellow soldiers to die terrible deaths in a war in another country. Neither set of parents will do the one thing the book begs from the beginning: listen.
For all the means of communication available in our world and the world of The Mere Wife, listening is a rare courtesy. The developers of Herot Hall refuse to acknowledge the stories and lives of those who lived on Herot’s land before their arrival. Like Beowulf, The Mere Wife is a story of invasion. In Beowulf, Grendel invades Herot Hall and dines on Danes. In The Mere Wife, the residents of Herot are invaders. Even Dana Mills, as a soldier landing on foreign shores to fight against people who live there, is an invader. And the novel’s ultimate tragedy: the parents acting as merciless invaders and conquerors in their children’s lives, refusing their children autonomy, choices, and what they want more than anything else: space to love and be loved.