#cbr10bingo So Shiny
The only reason I read Beowulf for my last selection was because I wanted to read The Mere Wife, a 2018 novel which I had heard was an innovative take on Beowulf from the point of view of the monster Grendel’s mother, and I wanted to have the epic poem fresh in mind for this. I read Madeline Miller’s Circe earlier this year and loved her imagining of Circe’s point of view vis-a-vis the events of The Odyssey, and initial reviews of The Mere Wife sounded promising. I was not disappointed. The Mere Wife is a startling take on the whole notion of hero vs. monster and on the role of class, race and gender in forming those definitions, especially in the present-day US.
Maria Dahvana Headley sets her Beowulf story in the contemporary US, in a wealthy suburban area located about a 2-hour commute from a bustling city. It’s a scenic place with mountains and a lake (the mere) which wealthy one-percenters have invaded and made their own. In Headley’s imagining, instead of King Hrothgar and his famous hall Heorot, we have Willa Herot, wife to the scion of the wealthy and powerful Herot family, a seemingly perfect, petite, thin, blond, immaculately dressed, alcoholic, dissatisfied and insecure queen who lives in a glass house. Instead of the valiant warrior Beowulf, we have a cop named Ben Woolf, a tough and virile war veteran. And instead of the man-eating monster Grendel, we have a 12-year-old boy named Gren who lives in a cave in the mountains above the mere with his mother Dana Mills. Dana is also a war veteran who has been physically and psychologically damaged by her experiences not just in war but in her homeland. Dana is a person of color, and the father of Gren is unknown, even to Dana. Her existence and Gren’s are a secret, and Dana prefers it this way; her greatest fears have to do with Gren and what the world out there would do to him. Her experience of war and of life in America have shown her that Gren would seem a monster to others even though he is just a boy; people would in turn behave like monsters toward him, harassing and perhaps even killing him. But Gren is a curious boy and is tired of hiding when he can see and hear a world beyond, down the mountain. In particular, he hears another boy, Willa Herot’s son, as he plays piano. His curiosity will get the better of him, and this is where the trouble begins. The two boys like each other, but when the world of privileged, white “haves” encounters the dispossessed and poor outsiders, Dana’s worst fears are realized. Willa calls the cops, bringing Ben Woolf on the scene. Fears escalate and so does violence. In Beowulf, Beowulf slays Grendel and his mother for King Hrothgar. In this story, there is a twist on that action, but Ben Woolf, like Beowulf, will find himself drawn to wanting to serve and protect Willa. In Beowulf, at the end of his life Beowulf has one last fight to the death with a dragon upset over the theft of a goblet from his treasure. Again, Headley has an ingenious way of incorporating this into her novel.
Headley uses her story to shine a light on our own history as it pertains to race and class. The wealthy white people who live around the mere seem to have no sense of the history of the area in which they live, no respect for those who lived there before them; they believe the area was nothing until they arrived. They drove out and built over a previous settlement, and then erased or rewrote the history of those who lived there, including Dana’s family. Telling the story mainly from women’s points of view is also quite powerful. Narration shifts from Dana to Willa to a chorus of privileged female elders — Willa’s mother, mother-in-law and their friends. These women are the gate keepers; they see everything, including the infidelity of men, but they cover up and protect. They and Willa would never see themselves as having anything in common with Dana simply because they are all women. They are fixers, loyal to their own kind, warriors on behalf of their own privilege. They may not like each other very much, but they know that they are all on the same team. They are complicit.
The Mere Wife does not change the way Beowulf ends, but they way it gets to that ending is brilliant. The Mere Wife shows us how easily we can turn a hero into a monster and vice versa. We need to pay attention to who gets to tell the story and whose story is suppressed. This couldn’t be more timely when you consider recent news stories about caravans coming north to the US and the way white women vote. Maria Dahvana Headley nails it.