Review: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

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(Look at that pretty cover!)

I have to admit I wasn’t too sure of the “suburban Beowulf” premise at first. But after a lot of praise and prodding by Jen of The Fantasy Inn (you were, as always, right – it was up my alley) I had to give it a try. I’m still not quite sure what I read, but I sure enjoyed it.

Listen to me. Listen. In some countries, you kill a monster when it’s born. Other places, you kill it only when it kills someone else. Other places, you let it go, out into the forest or the sea, and it lives there forever, calling for others of its kind. Listen to me, it cries. Maybe it’s just alone.

I have to admit I have only passing familiarity with Beowulf. It didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story at all, but I am wondering about all the connections I may have missed and the gaps the review might have because of it. So keep that in mind.

In essence, The Mere Wife follows the stories of two women and their sons: Dana, a former soldier who was supposed to be killed on camera but somehow survived and believes she gave birth to a monster, and Willa, a suburban wife seemingly living a perfect life in her gilded cage of a gated community. They’re both fiercely protective of their sons, wanting to keep them within confines of the world they live in, and see the other as the enemy, so when their sons meet and befriend each other, things get…messy.

It’s beautifully written (just see the number of quotes I felt compelled to include!), but there’s nothing happy about their story. Those looking for neat resolutions should look elsewhere.  Everything and everyone in it is deeply fucked up. Dana’s PTSD, Willa’s controlling mother, the very traditionalist gated community…it explores the themes of the other, us vs. them, gentrification, horrors of war, how one can live a seemingly perfect life and still be deeply unhappy, what does it mean to be a monster, the stories of those who are usually ignored. And it’s wonderful in that.

There’s no sign of her gravestone now. I don’t know how they got permission to build mini-mansions on top of a graveyard, but I guess they did. The cemetery was almost two hundred years old. People never think, until it happens to their place, that all construction is destruction. The whole planet is paved in the dead, who are ignored so the living can dig their foundations.

It’s also magical realism in the way that we don’t really know whether all the little odd things are real or delusions. And unlike in The Gray House, it’s entirely left up to the reader to decide. It adds an additional layer of ambiguity and messiness on top, but also a lot of potential for discussion of different interpretations.

One of the most interesting things about it is the structure. In the beginning, we are introduced to the different translations of the Old English word hwæt. The chapters are grouped into sections named after them, and every chapter in each section starts with that word. Then there’s the matter of POV. There are first-person chapters written from Dana’s perspective, third-person chapters for Willa, “choir” chapters in plural from the perspective of wives or the mountain.

And all of the above? It works. It’s ambitious, sure, but with execution to match, so don’t be dissuaded.

If something’s happened once, we could all find love again. If something’s happened once, none of us are done for. None of us are the last of us. The story is all of the voices, not just the voice of the one who tells it at the end.

Enjoyment: 4.5/5
Execution: 4.5/5

Recommended to: prose fans, those looking for experimental/literary books
Not recommended to: anyone looking for a happy story, those who don’t want another book with the “bury the gays” trope

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