Maria Dahvana Headley
Very loosely based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley takes place in and around Herot Hall, a gated community in suburbia, replete with manicured lawns; regimented flower beds; and all manner of up-to-date security systems designed to keep outsiders off its pristine grounds. Herot Hall is an oasis where residents preside over a stream of never-ending dinner parties and children’s play-dates.
Our attention is drawn to Willa Herot, mother of Dylan, and wife of Roger, the heir of Herot Hall. Willa leads a surreal existence, a life riddled with popping pills and alcoholism. She is surrounded by a bevy of older women with surgically enhanced body parts, immaculately coiffed hair, and scrupulously polished fingernails. They swoop in on Willa at regular intervals to ensure her home, family, and dinner parties are up to snuff.
And then there is Dana Mills, a veteran of a desert war suffering from PTSD. Caught by her captors and somehow surviving a televised execution, she wakes up several months later to find herself pregnant. She returns to her home town and lives in hiding with her son, Gren. They live in tunnels and an abandoned train station buried deep within a mountain overlooking Herot Hall.
Convinced Gren looks like a monster, Dana showers him with unconditional love and a fierce determination to protect him from outsiders who will target him because of his difference. Her warnings to stay away from the monsters in Herot Hall go unheeded when Gren’s curiosity gets the better of him. He ventures down the mountain and befriends Dylan Herot. Their friendship becomes the catalyst that leads to an inexorable collision course.
Headley sets up a series of contrasts between Willa and Dana. Willa lives under a microscope in her brightly lit home with its large windows. She can rely on the support of power-wielding women to help her pick up the pieces every time her life falls apart. In contrast, Dana lives in darkness in the belly of a mountain with Gren as her only support and companion. Willa’s dinner parties with their sumptuous meals and tinkling glasses are described in vivid detail while Dana survives on whatever she can scrounge from the land and animals she can trap.
In spite of their differences, the two women have in common a struggle to survive. They are isolated and trapped in different ways. In the gated community with its locks and bolts and social expectations, Willa strives to make meaning in a life she finds insignificant and a lifestyle peppered with lies and deceptions. Meanwhile, festering away in the entrails of a mountain, Dana struggles with flashbacks and hallucinations that color her perceptions of reality.
This is an ambitious novel. In some ways, it is perhaps a little too ambitious. The point of view constantly shifts with a plethora of different voices, including Dana’s first person, the Greek chorus-like women of Herot commenting on events, the spirits inhabiting the mountain, third person limited omniscient, and others. The shifts are disconcerting. Add to the mix hallucinations and imaginary conversations with imaginary people, and it becomes a challenge to know who is saying what to whom, what is real and what is imagined. The last section of the novel, with its rapid pace toward a final crescendo, is confusing and baffling.
In spite of these short comings, the novel is a compelling exploration of current concerns clothed in an ancient myth. It explores significant themes of race and class divisions; othering; “us” versus “them;” privilege; the lingering effects of war trauma; life-thwarting societal expectations; maternal love; the price we pay to survive; and the manner in which female power is exercised in a male-centered culture. It poses the following underlying questions: where are the monsters? Are they inside us or outside us? And who are the real monsters? Is it those who live in their pristine surroundings determined to sustain their way of life, no matter the cost? Or is it those “others” rejected by society and forced to inhabit its margins?
The novel doesn’t provide answers but it does ask the right questions.