This has been a banner year for new envisionings of classic works. Back in April we had Jo Nesbo’s version of Macbeth (see here for my take on that), and now we have a new version of Beowulf, in the form of Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife. But don’t worry if you haven’t read the original (or if, like me, you read the original a LONG time ago). You can read The Mere Wife with no knowledge of the old English saga and still be blown away by this version, though if you do have some dim memory of Beowulf, you can read the book with a slightly different eye.
While Beowulf was a poem about a monster attacking a king’s hall, and the hero who kills the monster and the monster’s mother (who comes to avenge the monster’s death), The Mere Wife is set in modern times (one of the main characters is a veteran of the Iraq war). That doesn’t mean there aren’t monsters; in fact, there are probably more monsters in The Mere Wife than in Beowulf, though these ones, for the most part, appear human.
Dana Mills should be dead, and maybe she was: there’s a video of her execution by enemy soldiers which circulated at the time of her capture on You Tube and on television. Somehow she found herself alive and pregnant, with no idea how she survived the execution and no idea how she got pregnant or who the father might be, but she returns to her hometown, officially dead. Her hometown is officially dead, too, remade into a gated suburban estate, much too upper crust for the likes of her and her baby, Gren. So Dana goes to live inside the mountain beside the estates, in abandoned tunnels from a forgotten train, and she tries to keep her son safe from the people below.
Willa Herot is one of the people in the estate, married to a plastic surgeon, scion of the family that created the estate in the first place. She, too, has a son: Dylan, a blond, perfect little boy, possibly a bit spoiled but carefully protected nonetheless from anything in the outside world that might harm him. At first glance, Willa seems like an ordinary, even dull, suburban wife, going through the motions of living up to the standards set by the other women of the development, who are the real powers in the neighborhood. And yet, even at the beginning of the book, when Willa comes across as almost a cliche, from time to time we see the violent thoughts Willa keeps to herself and it’s clear she has hidden depths, just like Dana.
Despite the best efforts of their mothers, eventually Gren and Dylan are going to meet, and their meeting sets up a confrontation between the old and the new, the rich and the working class, the past and the present, from which nobody comes out unscathed.
The characters are what makes this book. Dana is obviously damaged by her war experiences, and frequently it’s hard to tell whether she’s hallucinating things (the saint with the blown out abdomen with a candle in it is probably an illusion, but what about the old woman riding beside her in a bus to Herot who tells her about her future?), and Willa develops, slowly but inexorably, from someone you might feel sorry for to a woman of steel, hard-edged with ambition and anger, emotionally as dangerous as Willa and as willing to do whatever she feels she has to do in order to protect her son from the monster, Gren.
We never actually see Gren, but there are hints about what he looks like, what kind of creature he might be (considering the circumstances of his conception, he might be anything, and this is the kind of book where monsters are definitely possible), and for most of the book you don’t know what he is, just how people react to him when they see him (and not all of the narrators are reliable, which makes it even more complicated). Dylan doesn’t have any problem with Gren, but he’s just about the only resident of Herot Estates who sees Gren as a normal boy, a potential friend.
Still, the scariest characters are the chorus of women, who narrate some of the chapters in the first person plural. From early on, we see that Willa’s mother is scarily controlling and judgmental, but she fits in perfectly well with her peers, who prove to be the real powers that govern the estates and, by extension, the outside world as well. If there are monsters roaming through this book, I’d nominate these women as the worst and scariest of them, cold-blooded and extremely dangerous.
This is a book I devoured in a day, putting everything else aside to find out what happened next. Even knowing (as I did, dimly) that things were not going to end well for most of the characters, I still cared about their fates and whether any kind of justice would be done. It’s a dark, violent book, but enthralling as an exploration of how our world works, and what limits there might be on the love of mothers for their children.