Review: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

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Publication: July 17th 2018
Publisher: MCD
Pages:  308 pages
Source: Bookmobile
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Retelling, Contemporary, Mythology
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤⛤

“Here’s the truth of the world, here it is. You’re never everything anyone else wants. In the end, it’s going to be you, all alone, on a mountain, or you, all alone, in a hospital room. Love isn’t enough, and you do it anyway. Love isn’t enough, and it’s still this thing that everyone wants,” (Dahvana Headley 216-217).

Honestly, I don’t know a lot about Beowulf. I only read a snippet of it in high school, and picking up this book I knew I’d be reading it more as a book than as an adaption. I was intrigued by the idea of an adaption of Beowulf set in the suburbs, even if my memory on the original myth is fuzzy and incomplete. But still, I enjoyed it, and if anything it made me want to read Beowulf so that I could see the connections Dahvana Headley weaved into her work.

The Mere Wife follows two wives and two sons whose lives become intertwined and whose futures change because of it. Dana Mills is a former soldier, and she’s dead. Or she was, her beheading televised across the world, and then she wasn’t, found in the sand pregnant, she gives birth to her son Gren and hides away into the mountains with him where they can never be harmed. Willa Herot lives in the exclusive Herot Hall and is the ideal suburban housewife: thin, blonde, secretly despising the role of motherhood thrust upon her. Sure, she takes care of her son Dylan, she knows how mothers are supposed to act, but she doesn’t care for him. In two separate worlds so close together, Dylan and Gren find each other and a new friendship blooms, unknowingly bringing chaos to the mountains and the suburbs.

It’s clear from the start of the story that Dahvana Headley did a lot of research for this novel. The novel is divided into three parts, but is also divided into sections of what is described before the novel begins in the Selected Translations section as “interrogative pronouns” in which each chapter starts with the pronoun depending on the chapter. For example, the pronoun begins with “Say” and the section “Listen” comes after that and all chapters in the “Listen” section begin with the word, and so on. It was an incredibly creative way to format the story, and a great callback to the original work and translations.

Dahvana Headley also uses multiple perspectives which change depending on which characters you’re reading from. Willa’s chapters are in third person, Dana’s in first, and the mother’s and the mere in second. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book to play around with perspective changes with different characters as much as this book, but I enjoyed it. It gave each character their own uniqueness, and I was surprised by how the different perspectives fit so well with the characters they were assigned to.

Each of the characters were also very interesting. Willa was incredibly hard to like, and I hated her for most of the story but I liked that about her. A lot of authors seem afraid to write women who are unlikable or heinous, and I think we need more of them. Even though Willa is incredibly hard to love, Dahvana Headley gives her an interesting backstory. And while learning this backstory we learn that it doesn’t excuse who Willa is in the novel, though it might explain some things.

I loved Dana’s perspective, the first person perspective made it easy to relate to her and I loved the interpretation Dahvana Headley gave of her as an ex-soldier and how she adapted Grendel. And I loved the collective perspective of the mothers was also very unique. I loved the suburban stereotype of it, how it reminded me of a Greek chorus.

The Mere Wife is a moving, unforgettable, and creative novel that examines mothers and monsters and how closely the two roles intertwine. While I can’t accurately comment on the novel or the accuracy of the adaption, I can feel the research that Maria Dahvana Headley put into this novel and all her care and am sure that anyone who loves Beowulf or mythological adaptions should definitely read this book.

Favourite Quotes:

“Children are monsters, but there are ways to work around them,” (Dahvana Headley 20-21).

“You figure out what you can do for love, and the answer, it turns out, is anything. You can hide for love. You can stay hidden,” (Dahvana Headley 27).

“People never think, until it happens to their place, that all construction is destruction. The whole planet is paved in the dead, who are ignored so the living can dig their foundations,” (Dahvana Headley 33).

“If you leave things long enough, they stop belonging to anyone but the place they’re in,” (Dahvana Headley 47).

“He’s talking to himself, talking to nothing, and men who talk to nothing are men you can’t trust,” (Dahvana Headley 72).

“Death is one step in the wrong direction, a heartbeat losing its place,” (Dahvana Headley 74).

“I call death onto those who don’t know a child when they see a child. Men who think they made the world out of clay and turned it into their safe place, men who think a woman wouldn’t flip the universe over and flatten them beneath it. I have enough bullets for all of them,” (Dahvana Headley 117).

“This is the love that obliterates you. This is the love you die for,” (Dahvana Headley 139).

“There’s a long tradition that says women gossip, when in fact women are the memory of the world,” (Dahvana Headley 153).

“We have no illusions about men They’re all strong until they’re skeletons,” (Dahvana Headley 154).

“Tenderness is dangerous,” (Dahvana Headley 168).

“‘Listen to me. Listen. In some countries, you kill a monster when it’s born. Other places, you kill it only when it kills someone else. Other places, you let it go, out into the forest or the sea, and it lives there forever, calling for others of its kind. Listen to me, it cries. Maybe it’s just alone,'” (Dahvana Headley 189).

“You don’t really own anything. Nothing is yours forever, not your body, not your youth, not even your mind,” (Dahvana Headley 213).

“No one ever knows what mothers do. We defend our children from themselves, tooth and claw, bending the admission boards and battling landlords, taking the extra set of keys and cleaning up evidence of wrongdoing. We save out daughters from disaster, over and over again,” (Dahvana Headley 270).

“Maybe this had always been a job that mothers do. Raising them and protecting them, trying to get them out into the future still living, still loving, trying to defend them from all the things the fucked-up, broken world wants.

Maybe this has always been a job made for failure,” (Dahvana Headley 274).

“No one ever really knows who’s holding them at night, that’s one thing you learn when you’re dead,” (Dahvana Headley 300).

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