The Mere Wife: A Novel

Image of The Mere Wife: A Novel
Release Date: 
July 17, 2018
MCD Books
Reviewed by: 

At first glance a retelling of Beowulf doesn't seem that original. There have been countless spin-offs in prose, poetry, and even a movie. It is still considered one of the most important works in Old English literature. Bestselling author Maria Dahvana Headley tackles this epic work by looking at the translation of one word: aglaeca. During an NPR interview she explains that one word is used to describe Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel's mother. All of the translations, including J. R. R. Tolkien's, uses that one word to describe Beowulf as a hero while Grendel and Grendel's mother are described as monster and hag.

Headley saw Grendel's mother as a woman who fights and specifically fights with a sword. She saw the word aglaeca as meaning formidable and awe-inspiring. In all of the other adaptations that Headley looked at Grendel's mother was a monster, or a beast with no language. She decided to take her translation of that one word and build a retelling of the classic tale around it.

Dana Mills is a soldier who has returned from the war pregnant and alone. Her home Herot Hall is now an affluent suburb and the home of Roger and Willa Herot with their young son Dylan. Dana gives birth in the caves and tunnels of a forgotten train line to Grendel or Gren as she likes to call him.

To Dana, Gren is different, not like other boys and must be kept hidden, protected. That becomes her sole focus as he grows. Gren, like all children, wants friends and finds one in Dylan Herot. Their friendship is ill-fated from the beginning. Willa Herot does not believe wild animals have a place in the beautiful manicured lawns of Herot Hall. At first no one believe Willa until her party is interrupted by Dana trying to stop Gren and Dylan from running away together.

Officer Ben Woolf, also a former solider, takes over when the party ends in tragedy with the death of Roger Herot and Dylan is kidnapped. Ben finally believes Willa after he feels the strength of Dana Mill's blade at his neck. In order to win Ben needs to ". . . banish this coward crouching inside him. The coward has always been there, if he's honest. There's a reason he's a small town police officer."

Officer Woolf is ordered by Willa Herot to kill Dana Mills and Gren and rescue Dylan if he's still alive. He climbs the mountain and finds an old entrance to the tunnels. There he makes a gruesome discovery and finds Dylan who doesn't want to be rescued. After he returns to Herot Hall he is proclaimed a hero and marries Willa. They have two children and Dylan is sent away to boarding school.

Time passes and Herot Hall prospers. The tunnels have been rediscovered, and a new train is being built to connect Herot Hall with the city. Gren has never forgotten his childhood friend, Dylan. Gren makes the decision to leave his mother and return to Herot Hall to find Dylan. Dylan feels the same pull and leaves boarding school to hitchhike back home. Dana follows to protect her son even though Gren no longer wants her protection. At the ceremony to commemorate the opening of the Herot Hall train station everyone gathers for the final battle.

Headley weaves a strong narrative voice with several themes to make this an epic work that stands on its own next to the classic renderings of this historic tale. Dana Mills in this retelling is now a woman warrior who has been abandoned by everyone. Her home has been torn down and rebuilt into something that only a certain class of people can enjoy. There is no room for a poor, PTSD suffering, soldier returning from the war. She is pregnant and not even sure how she became pregnant or by whom. Dana's son is born different and there are times the reader is unsure whether Gren is different, deformed with glowing eyes and claws, or if it is part of Dana's PTSD hallucinations.

Headley describes Willa Herot as a woman constrained at every turn by her overpowering mother and her class status. There are appearances to keep up, no matter what the cost. Officer Ben Woolf is paraded as a hero yet he knows he is no match for Dana Mills and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her son.

This new take on Beowulf holds all the power and suspense of the original tale giving readers deep, fully fleshed out characters with all their strengths and flaws.