Maria Dahvana Headley, The Mere Wife (Scribe, 2018, 320pp, £12.99)
Reviewed by Rachel Hill (Goldsmiths, University of London)
Referred to playfully with the tagline ‘Beowulf in Suburbia’, The Mere Wife relocates blood-soaked Danish battlefields to the domestic spaces of a claustrophobic US household. Rather than an enraged mythical beast, it is traumatised Iraq war veteran and dispossessed mother Dana Mills who brings destruction to a small elite community. Headley supplants Beowulf’s inter-tribal skirmishes and the tyranny of supernatural monsters with the geopolitics of pax Americana. As a politically savvy and earnest text, centring the domestic labour which undergirds patriarchal power, The Mere Wife offers a sophisticated interrogation of enduring gender binaries in order, in Headley’s own words at the New Suns Festival in 2018, to ‘spread feminism like a disease.’
The Mere Wife foregrounds the importance of women as the custodians of myth, as ‘the memory of the world’ and the settlers of scores. Headley joins an illustrious sonority of texts, including Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (2005), Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia (2008), Pat Barker’s The Silence of The Girls and Madeleine Miller’s Circe (both 2018), which excavate erased voices, champion women’s lived experiences (in a fabulatory mode) and interrogate the mechanisms of gender-based oppression throughout time. The Mere Wife takes many of the narrative structures of its source, but inverts them, tipping gender asymmetries so that male prowess is replaced with an active mother-monster agency.
The novel’s central protagonists are two mothers, signalled by the double meaning of its title. Dana is deeply implicated within the local environment, which serves as both her ancestral lands and contemporary hiding-places (her name even evoking the Danish lands where most of the action of Beowulf is set, as well as ‘Mills’ emphasising her position as a precarious working-class subject). As with Grendel’s mother in the original text, Dana is in effect married to the mere and shares its fate. Willa on the other hand is ostensibly only or ‘merely’ a wife, defined by her marriage and the home which simultaneously protects and imprisons her.
The twinning of protection and imprisonment has a potent role in the novel, particularly when it comes to mothers and their fluctuating proximity to monstrousness. Dana’s desire to protect her son Gren from the barbarity lurking within her suburbanised ancestral lands leads her to hide him in the heart of the local mountain. Conversely, Willa fears the outside and its animal-agents, such as ‘the mouse, its teeth, its tail, this tiny thing in the centre of perfection, gnawing’. That the ungoverned ingress of these indigenous forces might corrode the societal hierarchies instantiated within her home, Herot Hall, is a locus of intense horror for her. The more each mother attempts to maintain their regime for survivalism or suburbanism, the more suffocating and monstrous their actions seem to the ones under their protection. Through both figures, motherhood is positioned as combative and highly flammable, in a text where motherly monsters commit acts of ferocious tenderness in order to protect.
Both mothers experience bouts of deteriorated perception, Dana due to her PTSD and Willa due to her various medications, often leading them to become unreliable witnesses. Both experience hallucinations, leading them to respond to seemingly phantom phenomena with excessive, sometimes deadly, force. With this flickering perception, the story charts the increasing freedom these mothers experience, as signalled by the warrior imagery they are increasingly associated with. Both invoke warrior images in moments of conflict, with Willa adorned in ‘semi-couture armour [...] she might become a revenant with a winged sword’, and Dana often characterised as an avenging berserker. Images of monsters, and the warriors that slay them, are thus collapsed into single, mutable mothers.
Perhaps the most formidable and entertaining depiction of mothers – in an excellent evocation of the techniques of oral storytelling – is the chorus of grandmothers, who speak in one voice. They are described as a ‘matriarchal unit’ and a ‘council of war’, they ‘march into the house and stand in a row, seventy years old, tight, taut and taught [...] we’re the last ones standing’. These women understand how to finagle systems of governance to achieve their goals, specifically, they control media narratives. A case in point is their twist on ‘The Wife's Lament’ from Beowulf; originally an expression of authentic grief, here, under the mother-chorus, death becomes the perfect PR opportunity. The public lament for Willa’s dead husband and missing son thus becomes a manipulative display to garner further social leverage, because this mother-battalion knows that the screen is the territory where wars are really won.
The diffraction of protection, invasion and imprisonment is spatialised in Herot Hall, an affluent home through which Headley examines contemporary political discourses around securitisation. Herot Hall highlights home as a site for the production of the domestic labour which underwrites and enables socio-political formations, whilst in turn demonstrating how modes of governance ideologically structure these households. As a secured site, the glass-swathed Herot Hall is ‘like a fortress’, flanked by a community of isolated home-battlements. These homes keep dwellers inoculated against the threat of otherness looming in the unmediated outside, even though ‘there are no bears, no wolves, no panthers. There are no predators left here. Willa has gotten rid of them’, citizens remain fearful. This process of gentrification invokes the sense of a past world in abeyance, creating a melancholy mise-en-scène of loss which is also redolent throughout the original Beowulf.
Contra to the logos of stratified space and order epitomised by Herot Hall’s house-forts, the surrounding mere is a phantasmagorical spectre of chaos, a magical realm in which spatiotemporal expectations are unravelled, and irrationality triumphs. Here, the supposed stability and depth of societal norms become reflected as an easily shattered surface, under which a tricksy mere-chaos lurks. In turn, the purported shallowness of the mere is instead replaced by leagues of different kinds of time. Containing multitudes, landscape within The Mere Wife thus functions in a similar mode to the heath in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1848). Headley’s mere and Brontë’s heath are both strongly fabulatory domains which are repositories for memory and, in an elision of both human and nonhuman forces, are passages through patchy concretions of time. The mere as an agential nonhuman force is further emphasised by the environment’s focal position, which bears witness in an all-consuming chorus. It is this environmental voice through which the earth reclaims its errant children:
We are a white deer and we are a black raven and we are blood in the snow. We are a sword made of old metal and we are a gun filled with old bullets and we are a woman standing before her mother's bones, holding her family treasure, broken.
The voices centred and recuperated within this revamped myth build upon a millenia-thick chorus of obscured women’s histories, in order to further empower and valorise contemporary feminist struggles. This forming of intergenerational solidarities through a fictive mode emphasises that a story ‘is all of the voices, not just the voice of the one who tells it at the end.’ The need for society to listen to historically erased, spoken-over and undermined voices is performed in The Mere Wife, as we are constantly compelled, implored and cajoled to ‘listen’. With an acute ear for rhythm, the novel is replete with moments of repetition and alliteration, woven together in the cats-cradle of a writer on the top of her form. I have only begun to tap the multiple tributaries of this complex, hallucinatory and sophisticated work, but one thing is clear: Headley is one of contemporary speculative fiction’s most fearless and compelling bards, to whom we would do well to listen.