Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife is an energetic, muscular update of the Beowulf story, one which articulates the original poem’s guiding tension between Beowulf and monster, civilisation and wilderness, as an issue of class. Thus our protagonist is not Beowulf but Grendel’s mother, here named Dana, the abandoned veteran of a bloody modern war in a desert country that has left her traumatised and pregnant. Her son, Gren, is raised in the wild countryside overlooking Herot Hall, a gated community built on land Dana’s family once owned whose inhabitants strictly police each other’s compliance with 21st century middle-class American social norms. Dana naturally admonishes Gren to stay away from Herot; Gren, equally naturally, sparks up a secret friendship with one of Herot’s scions, Dylan, the son of the development’s architect, and thus a particular focus of Dana’s ire. The results are tragic, bloody and messy: misunderstandings breed violence, which begets more violence, as the people of Herot viciously seek to defend a way of life which the novel explicitly shows us to be parasitic, capitalistic and evacuated of meaning.
I don’t often enjoy fiction that’s as committed to unrelieved bleakness as The Mere Wife is – Dana, and thus by extension Gren, spends her life in the thrall of a mental illness she acquired in service to a military that later repudiated her – but here it works to evoke the brutality of the world in which Beowulf takes place, a world in which constant war, constant violence, is necessary to maintain one’s position and protect one’s people. By transplanting Beowulf into 21st century America, in other words, Headley reveals the violence both actual and metaphorical at work in modern life, and particularly in the maintenance of contemporary class structures. It’s a savage, messy, angry novel, one to save for periods of mental fortitude; but worth a read, for anyone interested in the original poem.