You don’t need to be a Tolkien-level expert in Old English to enjoy “The Mere Wife,” but it helps if you enjoyed Seamus Heaney’s glorious translation of “Beowulf” or endured that bizarre animated version written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, starring Angelina Jolie as the least convincing (and most naked) incarnation of Grendel’s mother. Headley borrows, twists and repurposes everything from her source text, sometimes riding parallel to the original and sometimes abandoning it altogether.
The dexterity of Headley’s wit is evident right there in her title, “The Mere Wife.” That’s a sly pun on the ancient and modern meanings of “mere,” denoting both “lake” and “insignificant.” But there’s more than one wife drowning in insignificance in this novel. From start to finish, this is a story about where women take refuge and how they wield power. Chapter by chapter, we hear about them in different voices: first person and third person, along with a chorus of older women that sounds closer to a Greek tragedy than an Anglo-Saxon poem.
The novel is set in Herot Hall, a ritzy planned community “with its own grocery and pharmacy, each house with a fireplace, and each fireplace burning gas, a clean blue flame flicked on with a switch, lapping at logs made of stone.” Every aspect of this gated neighborhood has been designed for faux nostalgia and strict control; even the common areas are landscaped “to look as though wildflowers had seeded themselves in neat rows.”
The reigning figures of this community are Roger and Willa, a wealthy plastic surgeon and his ferociously dieting wife. “Other wives look at her and wonder,” the narrator writes, “and she wants it that way. She photographs and posts. She dresses for dinner. It is a competition, even though it pretends not to be.” This is a wickedly acerbic vision of modern life, and Willa, 32, is a well-toned, cellulite-free queen of rage, trapped in a domestic life she loves and loathes. With her irritating son finally in school, she’s free to do Pilates and wander through the grocery store appraising “cageless chickens, free-range beef, vegetables untouched by progress.”
One of the great pleasures of this novel is how cleverly and unpredictably Headley translates the actions of upper-class life into the sweep and gore of “Beowulf.” As the hereditary rulers of Herot Hall and its social kingdom, Roger and Willa host wine-soaked get-togethers, only we know what terror awaits them. Coming into the kitchen early Christmas morning, Willa sees the carnage from the night before: “Each gingerbread man is missing its head, neatly bitten off.”
But this is no mock heroic — or not merely a mock heroic. In her own destabilizing way, Headley vacillates between a wicked parody of privileged families and a tragic tale of their forgotten counterparts. Far from the antiseptic glamour of Roger and Willa’s palatial house hides a traumatized army vet named Dana Mills. Captured in battle and possibly raped, she was presumed dead after a video of her supposed beheading went viral, but she managed to escape and return to her hometown, only to find it replaced by the Herot Hall development. Now Dana lives in a mountain cave, rearing her son, Gren, away from the myriad dangers of the world, eating stray pets and berries.
Listen how the narrative shifts into a different register, mystical and ancient, with its own rough-hewed poetry:
“Long after the end of everything is supposed to have occurred, long after apocalypses have been calculated by cults and calendared by computers, long after the world has ceased believing in miracles, there’s a baby born inside a mountain. Earth’s a thieved place. Everything living needs somewhere to be. There’s a howl and then a whistle and then a roar.”
Gren’s mother thinks she can cradle that roar within the mountain forever, but her son grows into a curious, agile wild child. Peering down at the forbidden people in Herot Hall, Gren spies Willa’s son, a boy about his own age, and that fascination draws their worlds into violent collision. How else, after all, can the pampered and anxious folk of Herot Hall perceive Gren and Gren’s mother except as monsters that threaten everything they’ve conquered, everything they’ve built? “We are each other’s nightmares,” Dana says.
But where’s our epic hero?
Just as Headley removes him from the title of her version of “Beowulf,” she also greatly diminishes his role in the story. In this reimagining, he’s a former Marine on the local police force named Ben Woolf, “a Viking-looking man in uniform, very tall and very blond.” A former swimming star who almost made the Olympics, Ben feels bored and underused. “Nobody needs to be killed,” he laments. “He misses the war. What kind of heroics are possible” in this gated community? For him, the crisis sparked by the intrusion of Gren and Gren’s mother is an answer to prayer, a chance to get the TV newscasters to sing his praises.
Headley is the most fearsome warrior here, lunging and pivoting between ancient and modern realms, skewering class prejudices, defending the helpless and venturing into the dark crevices of our shameful fears. Someday “The Mere Wife” may take its place alongside such feminist classics as “The Wide Sargasso Sea” because in its own wicked and wickedly funny way it’s just as insightful about how we make and kill our monsters.