Headley's jabs at suburban smugness are fun ("To us, and people like us" is a favorite Herot Hall toast), and Dana's hallucinatory flashbacks to the desert war are both harrowing and disorienting…Headley's prose can be stark, lacerating, insightful…The role reversals Headley devisesand the way she adapts an ancient tale into a 21st-century struggle between haves and have-nots, brown-skinned and white, damaged and intactare largely effective.
New York Times bestselling author Maria Dahvana Headley presents a modern retelling of the literary classic Beowulf, set in American suburbia as two mothersa housewife and a battle-hardened veteranfight to protect those they love in The Mere Wife.
From the perspective of those who live in Herot Hall, the suburb is a paradise. Picket fences divide buildingshigh and gabledand the community is entirely self-sustaining. Each house has its own fireplace, each fireplace is fitted with a container of lighter fluid, and outsidein lawns and on playgroundswildflowers seed themselves in neat rows. But for those who live surreptitiously along Herot Hall’s periphery, the subdivision is a fortress guarded by an intense network of gates, surveillance cameras, and motion-activated lights.
For Willa, the wife of Roger Herot (heir of Herot Hall), life moves at a charmingly slow pace. She flits between mommy groups, playdates, cocktail hour, and dinner parties, always with her son, Dylan, in tow. Meanwhile, in a cave in the mountains just beyond the limits of Herot Hall lives Gren, short for Grendel, as well as his mother, Dana, a former soldier who gave birth as if by chance. Dana didn’t want Gren, didn’t plan Gren, and doesn’t know how she got Gren, but when she returned from war, there he was. When Gren, unaware of the borders erected to keep him at bay, ventures into Herot Hall and runs off with Dylan, Dana’s and Willa’s worlds collide.
“Everyone might be a monster underneath their skin,” thinks Dana Mills, a character in this clever reimagining of Beowulf as a mordant glimpse of the mores of contemporary suburbia. Dana is a maimed ex-soldier who lives in an abandoned railroad tunnel above her hometown, Herot Hall, with Gren, her son, through whom the author, by being intentionally vague about his appearance, emphasizes the idea that monstrousness is in the eye of the beholder. When Gren befriends Dylan “Dil” Herot (Gren and Dil’s names combine to sound much like Grendel, one of the antagonists in Beowulf), the young son of descendants of the town’s founder with whom he shares a close bond, the stage is set for a dramatic face-off between Dana and local cop Ben Woolf. When Ben is called to investigate Dana and Dil’s unintended disruption of a Christmas party at the Herots’, he interprets it as a home invasion that must be avenged. Headley (Magonia) applies the broad contours of the Beowulf story to her tale but skillfully seeds her novel with reflections on anxieties and neuroses that speak to the concerns of modern parenting. Her narrative leaps between grisly incidents of violence and touching moments of motherly love that turn her tale’s source material inside out and situate it in a recognizable modern landscape where, as Ben accepts, “the world isn’t large enough for monsters and heroes at once.” (July)
“Headley (whose own translation [of Beowulf] comes out next year) brings the story of the hero, the monster, and the monster’s mother into contemporary times with uncommon vigor and depth.” Boris Kachka, Vulture
“The Mere Wife is a book on par with Lidia Yuknavitch's The Book of Joan: electric, feminist, literary retellings of famous tales, but with dystopian spins. The Mere Wife reimagines Beowulf by setting it in a suburban landscape of intense economic disparity . . . Headley's language is exquisite and imaginative, the contemporary adaptation on-point and thought provoking--essentially, this is how to retell a classic.” Elena Nicolaou, Refinery29
"[A] stunner: a darkly electric reinterpretation of Beowulf that upends its Old English framework to comment on the nature of heroes and how we 'other' those different from ourselves... A strange tale told with sharp poetic imagery and mythic fervor." Booklist (starred review)
"There’s not a false note in this retelling, which does the Beowulf poet and his spear-Danes proud." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Headley (Magonia) applies the broad contours of the Beowulf story to her tale but skillfully seeds her novel with reflections on anxieties and neuroses that speak to the concerns of modern parenting." Publishers Weekly
"The Mere Wife [is] an intense, visceral reading experience. . . [the book is] a revisioning of Beowulf, and Maria finds the bones, the sharp edges, the bleeding heart of that story, and tells it against a modern context." Kat Howard, author of An Unkindness of Magicians
"Maria Dahvana Headley is a gift, a genius, and an absolute wonder; I would follow her anywhere." Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties
"The Mere Wife is a work of magic. A wild adventure; a celebration of monsters, myths, and the power of mother-love. Imagine a writer so bold, so ambitious, so about it that she challenges Beowulf to arm wrestle. That writer is Maria Dahvana Headley and let me tell you something, she is here to win." Victor LaValle, author of The Changeling
“Maria Dahvana Headley translates the excesses of contemporary life into the gloriously mythic. This is not just an old story in new clothes: this is a consciousness-altering mind trip of a book.” Kelly Link, author of Get in Trouble
"Maria Dahvana Headley writes with crackling headlong sentences that range among old plots and news observations about a world that earlier today seemed too familiar. Master story teller, brilliant stylist, a writer with this sort of command of language is a delight to read. Here's a book to call up an old story in the newest possible way." Samuel R. Delany, author of Dhalgren and Dark Reflections
"The Mere Wife is an astonishing reinterpretation of Beowulf: Beowulf in suburbiaepic, operatic, and razor-sharp, a story not of a thick-thewed thegn, but of women at war, as wives and warriors, mothers and matriarchs. Their chosen weapons are as likely to be swords as public relations, and they wield both fearlessly. They rule, and they fight." Nicola Griffith, author of Hild
"With a sharp eye and a deft flourish, Maria Dahvana Headley reimagines one of our oldest stories to give us a chilling, elemental vision of our latest selves. The Mere Wife is a bold, stunning riptide of a book." Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife
Headley, a writer of juvenile fiction (Aerie, 2016, etc.) and fantasy, steps into the adult world with this spot-on reimagining of a classic of Old English literature.Think "mere" as sea, as in the Old English, and not just as some dismissive term. Think of the world as the author of Beowulf did, where sea caves shelter monsters and great mead halls harbor mighty warriors who melt away when the monsters make their way inland. Headley recasts the geography of a place that's most contemporary, a suburb of cul-de-sacs and playgrounds, meant to be a community but full of people who live their own isolated lives, while up on the bordering mountain of which the brochures boast, strange things are afoot. Willa has her doubts about the planned community of Herot Hall —"I always thought it might be a mistake to leave the back of the houses unfenced," she frets—and for good reason, for within a cave on the mountain live Dana, a PTSD-scarred returned soldier, and her son, Gren, who are definitive outsiders. Unsocialized, wild, brown-skinned Gren has learned from Dana that Herot Hall is a place of monsters that "tear people from limb to limb," but Gren is infatuated with Willa's son, Dylan, who dares play outside and shows no fear. The fraught friendship of the two throws the carefully constructed worlds of Willa, who keeps weekly menus taped to her refrigerator, and Dana, who is never far away from military-grade weapons, into a spin; Herot Hall may be a "toddler empire," but it is now a place of amber alerts and armed patrols, all courtesy of a combat-ready cop named Ben Woolf. Things do not end well in Herot Hall or on the mountain either: "There are sirens," writes Headley with lyrical assuredness, "and then more sirens, like God has come down from heaven and called out for every church to lay tribute."There's not a false note in this retelling, which does the Beowulf poet and his spear-Danes proud.
This lyrical novel uses the Old English epic Beowulf as its template, but in this rendering, female and matriarchal power move to the fore. Grendel's mom has a name here: Dana Mills, an Iraq war veteran who has survived an attempted beheading and been impregnated by an unknown wartime father. She and her monster of a son live in an abandoned railroad station under a mountain mere, or inland sea, near an Aspen-like community called Herot Hall. Its elite citizens parallel the poem's Danes. There's a chorus of formidable mothers and mothers-in-law, but the tale centers on one powerful woman, Willa Herot, whose son befriends Grendel, drawing him and Dana toward civilization and danger. Dana slays Willa's husband, Roger, and Willa subsequently marries the sexy police chief, Ben Woolf. Those familiar with the long poem can see where this is going. VERDICT As with any mythically or allegorically driven novel, the plot becomes fantastical when grafted onto modern tropes. Nevertheless, Headley's heroic prose and vivid imagery offers thought-provoking correlations between ancient themes and recent historical events. Its emphasis on feminist power gives an old tale renewed significance. [See Prepub Alert, 11/12/17.]—Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Listen. Long after the end of everything is supposed to have occurred, long after apocalypses have been calculated by cults and calendared by computers, long after the world has ceased believing in miracles, there's a baby born inside a mountain.
Earth's a thieved place. Everything living needs somewhere to be.
There's a howl and then a whistle and then a roar. Wind shrieks around the tops of trees, and sun melts the glacier at the top of the peak. Even stars sing. Boulders avalanche and snow drifts, ice moans.
No one needs to see us for us to exist. No one needs to love us for us to exist. The sky is filled with light.
The world is full of wonders.
We're the wilderness, the hidden river, and the stone caves. We're the snakes and songbirds, the storm water, the brightness beneath the darkest pools. We're an old thing made of everything else, and we've been waiting here a long time.
We rose up from an inland sea, and now, half beneath the mountain, half outside it, is the last of that sea, a mere. In our soil there are tree fossils, the remains of a forest, dating from the greening of the world. They used to be a canopy; now they spread their stone fingers underground. Deep inside the mountain, there's a cave full of old bones. There was once a tremendous skeleton here, rib cage curving the wall, tail twisting across the floor.
Later, the cave was widened and pushed, tiled, tracked, and beamed to house a train station. The bones were pried out and taken to a museum, reassembled into a hanging body.
The station was a showpiece before it wasn't. The train it housed went back and forth to the city, cocktail cars, leather seats. The cave's walls are crumbling now, and on top of the stone the tiles are cracking, but the station remains: ticket booth, wooden benches, newspaper racks, a café counter, china teacups, stained-glass windows facing outward into earthworms, and crystal chandeliers draped in cobwebs. There are drinking fountains tapping the spring that feeds the mountain, and there's a wishing pool covered in dust.
No train's been through our territory in almost a hundred years. Both sides of the tunnel are covered with metal doors and soil, but the gilded chamber remains, water pouring over the tracks. Fish swim in the rail river and creatures move up and down over the mosaics and destination signs.
We wait, and one day our waiting is over.
A panel in the ceiling moves out of position, and a woman drops through the gap at the end of an arch, falling a couple of feet to the floor, panting.
She's bone-thin but for her belly. She staggers, leans against our wall, and looks up at our ceiling, breathing carefully.
There's a blurry streak of light, coming from the old skylight, a portal to the world outside. The world inside consists only of this woman, dressed in stained camo, a tank top, rope-belted fatigues, combat boots, a patch over one eye, hair tied back in a piece of cloth. Her face is scarred with a complicated line. On her back, there are two guns and a pack of provisions.
She eases herself down to the tiles. She calls, to any god, to all of them.
She calls to us.
Tree roots dangle through the ceiling tiles. A wandering bird swoops down from the outside world, makes its way through the arch, and settles into a secret nest glittered with hoop earrings made of brass, candy wrappers, bits of ribbon.
The woman screams, and her scream echoes from corner to corner of the station, and there is no train, and no help. There is no one but us, silent, and this woman, alone underground. She grits her teeth, and pushes.
We watch. We wait.
The labor takes a day and a night. The sun transits the sky, and the moon slips through the skylight.
The baby latches fingers into the woman's rib cage, toes into her pelvis, and forces itself out breech, unfolding, punching, pressing against something that will not give, and then does.
She screams once more, and then her son is born, wet, small, bloody. He takes his first breath. He gasps, gagging on air, his fingers spread.
His mother's eyes flicker with fire, and her hands glow, as though a bomb has exploded in the far distance, not outside but in.
She breathes. She clenches her fists and brings a knife out of her pack. She cuts the cord and ties it off with a strip of cotton from her shirt. She looks at her child, holding him up into the thin beam of light.
The baby's eyes open, golden, and his mouth opens too. He's born with teeth. His mother looks at him, her face uncertain. She holds him carefully, her hands shaking.
Wonders have been born before. Sometimes they've been worshipped. There've been new things over and over, and some creatures have fallen groaning to the ground and others have learned to fly.
Never mind the loneliness of being on Earth. That will come later.
She touches the baby's face. She washes him with our water, and swaddles him in her shirt, tight against her body.
"Gren," she whispers.
In our history, the history of the mountain, of the land that surged up out of the darkness at the bottom of the sea, this is only an instant, and then it will be dark again.
"Listen," she whispers to the baby.
All the other things that have been born here rise silently in the water of the mere to listen with him, toothed, clawed, each with its own ridge of spiny gleam.
The mountain's citizens look at the infant for a moment, listen to his mother for a moment, and then dive back into the depths.
He is born.CHAPTER 2
"Listen!" Dylan's playing "Chopsticks" with all his might.
Willa doesn't want to listen. She'll never want to listen to people learning to play the piano, and yet other mothers claim to enjoy things in this category.
Dil practices, slowly climbing the keys, and then a mistake, and he starts over. She wouldn't allow him the clarinet. "Chopsticks" is his vengeance. He's only seven. When she was only seven, she was perfect.
"Listen!" he demands again.
"Let's go to the grocery store, Dilly!"
The piano lid slams shut, silencing the cries of ivory keys, probably made of elephants. Willa feels stabbed every time she hears it playing. Ebony too. Those trees make spears. The piano is an act of savage warfare disguised as culture. No one else seems to notice, but Willa's always been sensitive.
She checks the menu she's posted on the refrigerator.
Sunday: Pork Chops with Applesauce and Salad
Monday: Chicken à la King with Scalloped Potatoes
Tuesday: Clam Chowder with Cornbread (Homemade)
Wednesday: Green Pasta & Ravioli with Red Sauce
Thursday: Shrimp Cocktail, Fish Filet, Salad
Friday: Flank Steak in Marinade
Saturday: Pizza Night — Choose Your Own Toppings!
Every Day: Vodka Martini
This week is irrelevant, though, because it's a holiday week. She should have the Christmas menu up. It's two days till goose, though that may have been a mistake. She's never done a goose before. Who has? She could have a cook come, or subscribe to a service, but she does the cooking herself. It's part of her claim to fame. Other wives look at her and wonder, and she wants it that way. She photographs and posts. She dresses for dinner. It is a competition, even though it pretends not to be.
At 4:30 every afternoon she's in the kitchen, looking at her reflection in the appliances. At 5:30 she's pouring a cocktail for Roger, and at 5:33 he's walking in the door, his hand outstretched for it, kissing her, not entirely chastely. There's always something of an event in this kiss, in the way her dress bunches against his belt. She likes it when he does it in front of guests.
She looks into the mirror she keeps on the kitchen wall and assesses herself, thinking about a pair of fishnet tights she once owned, worn with a tunic that scarcely covered her bottom. The tights were printed with peacock feathers. Now she'd never. She straightens her sweaterdress and gathers the bags. She can stretch a grocery trip out for an hour, two, maybe more. The miles of aisles at the Herot Hall grocery store are wide enough that you could drive a car down them if you wanted to.
Willa wants to. Every day she doesn't.
She has an outing there in the afternoons and comes home with dinner, plotted and planned. She brings Dylan with her and he skids through the aisles, treating them like ice. No one minds. He's perfect. Everyone thinks so, the checkers, the stock boys, the other customers. The car is white, and that's tempting fate, but Dil's never sticky. He knows better.
Children are monsters, but there are ways to work around them. Six miles from Herot Hall there's a playground where Willa can, if she likes, pretend Dil isn't hers and she isn't his. She can sit on a bench smoking a cigarette — she's not actually a smoker, of course — while Dil monkeys his way along the jungle gym with the rest of the little lords of the flies.
At the Herot playground, she has to sit with other mothers, and watch as they bring snacks from their purses. She's expected to feed children who aren't her own. It's a community, emphasis on the commune. When Dil was only a few months old, she took him to a mommy group where a neighboring baby latched unexpectedly onto her breast. The baby tilted sideways, mouth agape, a triangle of shocking pink.
Viper! she thought, then redacted.
There was, however, a momentary escapade inside Willa's head, a bad adventure during which she broke the offending baby's neck and served the infant as a snack, surrounded by sippy yogurt and smashed peas.
Herot Hall is a toddler empire. Everyone with any power is between the ages of zero and seven. All boys are born with Nobel Prize potential. It's the mothers who ruin it, by forcing the boys into gentleness. That's what one of the fathers told her at cocktail hour.
Willa's own husband is the heir to Herot Hall. Roger's last name, in fact, is Herot. He's of noble family. Willa says that only in her head, but it's the truth. Roger's family built Herot Hall according to their own specifications, the buildings high and gabled, the entirety of the community self-sustaining, with its own grocery and pharmacy, each house with a fireplace, and each fireplace burning gas, a clean blue flame flicked on with a switch, lapping at logs made of stone. Central heat and air-conditioning. Finished basements. Landscaping to look as though wildflowers had seeded themselves in neat rows. It replaced the town that was here before, falling down since the railroad stopped running this line. Old Victorian monstrosities became condemned messes, full of a bunch of people who didn't belong in such a beautiful place. It took years to get them out. Willa didn't know Roger then, but if she had, she thinks she would have enjoyed the demolition. She always enjoys improvements.
She thinks of the Willa that existed before Herot, a Willa in an acting class wearing a striped sweater, a boy across from her looking into her eyes. A wineglass full of cheap white wine, an exposed brick wall, her body smashed against it, his tongue in her mouth —
Sometimes, admittedly, she misses living in the city. She isn't that person anymore, though, who called herself an actor, instead of actress. Here, that'd make the neighbors laugh. Lots of the neighbors are former city dwellers. They all moved out to where it was better, owning rather than renting, who'd want to suffer the subways with a child? And the guns, and the knives, and the lack of human compassion?
Roger and Willa have the loveliest house of all, the showpiece. Once a month, for the fun of it, they go out to dinner in the city, pretend they're on their honeymoon and get a free crème brûlée. They don't need it to be free, of course. They can afford whatever they want. Willa wouldn't have married another man like her first husband. That one was annulled. He doesn't even count. She woke up the morning after that wedding with her mother standing over her wedding bed. Willa's mother knows how to get a job done. Diane will never forgive Willa for that heroic rescue. Nor for the fact that she then had to take Willa to the doctor, urgently spilling secrets and lies, and the doctor, old man, family practice, did what was necessary.
"No need to speak of any of this to your father," Willa's mother said. "It'll only disgust him. For heaven's sake, Willa."
In this section of the fairy tale, Willa drifted flat in the backseat of the car with an ice pack on her belly and another on her back, and what felt like an entire roll of paper towels in her panties, which were plastic, because of the leather upholstery. Once, Willa was in a production of Julius Caesar, and the blood in that show? It came, it saw, it overcame. She bowed deep at the end, feeling like a living tampon. After the annulment, she felt like a —
Like a Jell-O mold, unset, tilting dangerously in the refrigerator.
Richie, Willa never saw again. He was a musician, was it any wonder? Willa had one tattoo by the time her mother found her, and it was Richie's name. After the abortion, her mother took her to the dermatologist, who turned the tattoo into a scar in the shape of someone Willa used to know. She went to bed in her childhood room for six months. Richie didn't try to find her. Instead, he got famous. Sometimes now she hears him on the radio, singing about hunger.
After the requisite recovery, Willa's mother handed her Roger's phone number, procured from Roger's mother.
"You're lucky," she said to Willa. "You're still pretty enough. You can get a doctor. There's a new community going up near the mountain. You won't go back to the city, Willa. You'll get married and have a child with Roger. I can see it. He'll want to be carried, and your knees'll give out on you. You'll never be able to wear heels again."
Their first date: cocktail bar, medium exclusive. Both of them laughed about their mothers meddling, while silently agreeing they looked good together. She checked his wallet while he was in the bathroom, to see if he was lying about anything. His plastic was platinum, and his driver's license listed his height accurately.
"To us, and people like us," Roger said, and raised his glass of champagne.
Willa looked at him, uncertain, but then she clinked. Everyone else could toast to themselves too, if they felt inclined. It wasn't as though she was stealing their luck.
They were married within the year. Now Willa's thirty-two. Her hair's blond of its own volition. Her face has high cheekbones, perfectly arched eyebrows, a mouth like rose-colored wax sealing something official. When there's anything that looks like a wrinkle or spot, her mother notices before she does.
"You can't let yourself go, Willa," Willa's mother says. "You have a man to keep."
She does. Willa's keep is this glass castle at Herot, and Roger's in private practice in the city, plastic surgery. He's done some work on Willa, just a little in the eyelids and the chin.
He sets his own hours, and they go on vacations. Once a cruise, once Tahiti, where the huts gave Willa a dismal feeling. She felt the bottom drop out every time she looked at the transparent floor. That'd been when she was unknowingly pregnant. She had one sip of a cocktail and vomited startlingly into the snorkelers.
Roger named Dylan after his own dead dad while Willa was passed out post-delivery. Now he's called Dil, because who can call a little kid Dylan? Shades of Bob and guitars, poets dead of drink in the snow, all of it. Besides, Dil and Willa, that implies a certain adorable familial quality. It also implies pickles.
She would've named her son Theodore, had she been given the opportunity. It isn't Willa's fault that Roger's dad, Dilly the First, died in a car accident during the building of Herot and needed to be commemorated. She never even met him.
Four days after Willa gave birth, two of her mother's friends arrived with a clenching device for revising her vagina. She didn't say no, though she was startled at the implication she'd need help. The mothers acted as though she'd lost vigilance, as though she were about to wander half naked through the streets, her pubis patchily shaven from childbirth, her breasts leaking, loinclothed in receiving blankets, but she was already, exhausted and faintly tearful, beginning to Kegel.
Dil wasn't a sleeper. She wasn't a sleeper either. No one was a sleeper, except for Roger, who slept for two years straight, through cries, howls, bouts of vomiting, diapers, diarrhea, and utter desperation, with a faint and intensely frustrating smile on his face. If she woke him, he pretended he'd never heard anything.
"Now, Willa," he'd say, and the baby would stop screaming, as if by magic. Then he'd go back to sleep, and the baby would screech like a bird of prey.
At least the baby years are done. Now Dylan's in school, and Willa has her days free, to do what? She hasn't found whatever it is. There must be a solution, but at present she does Pilates, and then sits in the kitchen, looking out over her domain, feeling faintly something.
The grocery store, at least, is cool and peaceful. It's gated into the community with the rest of the perks of Herot: cageless chickens, freerange beef, vegetables untouched by progress.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Mere Wife"
Copyright © 2018 Maria Dahvana Headley.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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