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  • Writer's pictureMichael Pogach

Pogach Reviews: The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley

Studies indicate that 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan vets suffer from PTSD. In addition, vets account for roughly 20% of all suicides in the US.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife tells the story of Dana Mills, an American POW beheaded on YouTube for the world to watch. Yet, somehow, she survives, waking up pregnant in a military hospital, being shipped home, going AWOL, and taking her monstrous son, Gren, back to where she grew up, to live in the mountain overlooking the exclusive gated community: Herot Hall.

Studies show that gated communities experience 33% fewer burglaries than non-gated communities. However, they experience slower police response time and evidence suggests they harbor a greater number of incidents of “intimate partner violence.” More than 70% of such incidents feature male attackers.

The Mere Wife tells the story of Willa Herot, wife of Roger, and Queen of Herot Hall. When a young Gren sneaks down from the mountain and meets Willa’s son Dylan, the two boys from different worlds take immediately to each other, with plans to run away together.

Neither mother can let this happen, however. Neither mother can allow their son to live in the world of the other, a world they each see as cruel and grotesque. Neither mother can let go. The resulting clash, inspired by the epic poem Beowulf, brings Anglo-Saxon ferocity to suburban America.

Make no mistake, this is not a straightaway retelling of Beowulf. It is not a reboot or a resetting. It is its own story: Dana and Willa and Gren and Dylan’s story. It is the story of facades, those that soldiers try to maintain when they return home from combat, and those that mothers try to keep up for the sake of their children, and those that wives put on for their husbands and their neighbors and their picked fences. It’s the story of what happens when these facades crumble.

The Mere Wife is a brutal, brilliant, epic, poetic, and unforgiving novel. You don’t need to have read Beowulf to “get it,” but it won’t hurt if you did. Headley’s prose and her use of point of view are elegant and powerful. There is everyone and no one to root for in this novel. There is everyone and no one to mourn. It’s like Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt.” You can see the original in there, but it’s Headley’s own now. Count me as a new fan.

5 / 5 stars


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