Good Men & Good Monsters: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley Review

If the question Beowulf sets out to answer is, “What does it mean to be a good man,” then the question The Mere Wife poses is, “What is the difference between a hero and a monster.” After I read Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf: A New Translation, I knew I had to read The Mere Wife next, which is her Beowulf inspired story about Grendel’s mother.

Summary

There are only a handful of female characters in the original text. Beowulf is a story of men, of Kings and heroes. But The Mere Wife focuses on the women of the story with Dana Mills (who takes the place of Grendel’s mother) and Willa Herot (who takes the place of Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife in the original text).

The story begins with Dana Mills returning from war pregnant and unsure of what exactly happened to her. She goes to hide in the mountain where she grew up, even though a suburb, Herot Hall, has been built in it’s shadow and over the graves of her ancestors. She and her son, Gren, hide for years, but as he gets older he ventures to Herot Hall where he develops a friendship with Dylan Herot, the son of Roger and Willa Herot. And so, Willa and Dana are in conflict as they both try to do what they believe is necessary to protect their sons.

Themes

Who are the monsters? Who deserves killing?

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

Dana Mills asks herself this early on, the main question of the book. Is Gren really a monster? Does he deserves Willa’s fear and hate? Neither Dana nor Willa are particularly trustworthy narrators. Their views of the world around them are deeply colored by the trauma they’ve endured and the lives they’ve carved out for themselves.

One of my favorite things about the novel, are the interludes throughout by the chorus of suburban grandmothers. They have a lot to say about what it costs to live in Herot Hall. About what it means to be a woman in this world.

Do you think sixty-fire-year-old women don’t go to war? We are always at war.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The language throughout the book is incredible. I found myself highlighting sentence after sentence as I read. I think the language and style can best be appreciated as a companion to Beowulf: A New Translation. Read together, you can best appreciate the similar structures. Like the use of “Listen” and other synonyms at the beginning of each section, which mirrors the use of “Hwaet” through the original verse. Or the refrain “No one needs to see us for us to exist. No one needs to love us for us to exist,” repeated throughout the novel.

Whether or not you enjoyed reading Beowulf, I absolutely recommend reading The Mere Wife. Experiencing the story through Maria Dahvana Headley’s words has given me a much better appreciation for why the original verse has spoken to so many people over the last hundred years.

If you enjoyed this review let us know, and check out our review of Beowulf: A New Translation as well.

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