Cultures Literature Monthly Review

June Review: ‘The Mere Wife’

Illustration by Ben Beechener

CW – discussions of rape, police brutality and racism 

I honestly couldn’t call myself a female medievalist and not be obsessed with Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife. I really cannot stress enough how exciting it is that a text like this actually exists. There are so many adaptations of Greek Mythology, (too) many retellings and reworkings of Shakespeare, yet there are very, very few of Beowulf and The Mere Wife is arguably the best. My goodness it is incredible; not to mention that it is primarily from a female perspective (big finger up to the stereotype that early medieval literature, with all its swords and stroppy heroes, is unequivocally masculine).

However, I know that if I keep talking about Beowulf many of you will start to switch off, finding yourselves thinking: I’m not studying Old English, I’m not a crazy fan of hero stories, so why would I bother reading a text combining the two? Naturally, this is probably a book you wouldn’t think to pick up. 

Which would be a big mistake. Huge. You would be leaving one of the most brilliant, and one of the most necessary books you would have read in a long time. 

In The Mere Wife, Headley gives Beowulf a modern-day spin, thus dramatising and poignantly handling some of the key concerns that plague us right now. I applaud the way she deals with the origins of Dana’s son Gren (no points for guessing who he’s meant to represent). The identity of Grendel’s father is a big taboo when it comes to Beowulf discussion, partly because (male) translators seem very keen to position Grendel’s mother as a character who is unquestionably villainous. To them, introducing any insinuation of a rape narrative would be to make Grendel’s mother far too human, far too much of an empathetic figure. Headley fights back against this misogyny, dealing with the issue head on. Dana Mills is clearly the victim of horrific male aggression and, as a result, the reader never strays from her side. Reading the text, we become her support bubble. One of the most beautiful moments is when she gives birth to her son alone inside a mountain retreat; Headley’s descriptions are so vivid that you feel as though you are there with Dana, standing beside her in solidarity. However, Headley is not unrealistic in her presentation of sexual assault survivors and I thank her for that. A powerful moment is when Dana is questioned by male soldiers about her pregnancy, 

‘“Rape, or consensual?”’

One answer means I’m a victim, and the other means I’m a collaborator, and I don’t know, so I don’t answer.’

So many women still don’t know where to turn; their only certainty is that they just have to keep surviving. That is exactly what Dana Mills decides to do, surviving her trauma by living vicariously through Gren’s childish eyes, who she sweetly describes metaphorically as ‘wonder’. But her life is forever haunted by the scars of her past, her desperation to protect her child stemming from an inability to trust and believe in humanity’s capacity to be and do good. The ending is inevitably tragic as Dana’s paranoia augurs her downfall. However, this does not mean that the novel ends without hope. Headley’s poetic final words ‘up and up’ are powerful in their metaphorical simplicity. Dana’s story is an acknowledgement that we still have work to do, but we are moving in the right direction. Just the fact that a text like The Mere Wife exists is incredibly important. 

Headley also deals sensitively and necessarily with issues of police brutality. Beowulf becomes the ex-marine turned cop Ben Woolf. Continually out for a fight, very much believing in the thesis of guilty until proven innocent and motivated by suggestions of white supremacy, he is most certainly the villain of the piece. However, while the reader cannot help but hate him, he is revered as the hero by many characters. He is rewarded with trophies for his violent assault on the pre-teen Gren, he gains applause and renown from the Herot Hall community for his ‘daring’ deeds and he gets the girl, the beautiful twin boys, the house, everything. I’d call Headley’s handling of the American police a wake-up call, if I was convinced America was in a state where it could ever properly wake up and accept the definite flaws within its system. 

While The Mere Wife is undoubtedly dark in its subject matter, there are some stunning moments of relief. Although don’t let the darkness dissuade you; it is an important book – even if it is difficult to read at times because the stories are so hauntingly familiar. Headley’s handling of the friendship between Gren and Dylan, while arguably a little too derivative of novels of friendship like Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, is gorgeously realised. Despite the two boys hailing from vastly different backgrounds – Dylan the mollycoddled mummy’s boy who has never left his gated community, Gren (quite literally at points) raised by wolves in the wilderness – they somehow live together as friends, then – yes, somewhat predictably – lovers. However, Headley does not make it hackneyed in any way; their relationship is completely believable and is one of the most soul-warming presentations of genuine love I have read in a long time. As Dylan expresses when still a child, 

‘Is this what love is? That you can see each other, even in the dark?’ 

I could talk for ages about how important this book is, not only for me, but for the world as a whole. But I won’t; I’ll let you read it, be bruised and broken down by Headley’s staggeringly potent prose. I’ll also let the text heal you, help you make sense of this messy, chaotic world that we currently live in and use it to work to find a way forward, a way to survive. 

I’m going to let Headley end this review and leave you with the final lines of this incredible tale; make of them what you want and will. I personally think this is one of the most beautiful endings to a book quite possibly ever. Spoiler alert…it’s even more wow when you read the book! 

‘I’m in a crowd, and hanging on to my hand is my son, tiny, learning to walk, learning to talk, learning to be alive.

I’m in a crowd and we are all walking together, my mother and my grandmother, my husband and my heart, my son and his beloved, the soldiers I fought beside, the people we killed, and the people who killed us. My saints with her breasts on fire, and my strangers with their hands out, telling me to listen. 

The sun is setting, and the town is a skyline, black as the back of a whale coming up out of the ocean, making this soul into steam. 

We walk past the fire and past the graves, under the stars, up the mountain, up, and up.’ 

Jess Steadman (she/her) is the Senior Cultures Editor at The Oxford Blue. She is a second year studying Medieval Literature at Univ and is from (mostly sunny) Essex. If you want to find her, she is probably chopping about on the Isis River.