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FICTION: A FEMINIST BEOWULF

September 09, 2018

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The epic Beowulf is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem about the titular hero who saves a kingdom from a monster, then from the monster’s mother and finally from a dragon. Possibly the oldest surviving story in English, Beowulf is, of course — as patriarchy and primarily male translations would have it — a story of men; of aggressive masculinity, of violence and power and war. The women in the epic are limited to tropes: trophy, hag, monster.

Maria Dahvana Headley has never been one for accepting tropes as patriarchal history or translations have ordered them to be. The Mere Wife — ‘mere’ in this case meaning a lake — is a voracious exploration of femininity, suburban malaise, modern day societal pressures, attempts at sanitised ‘safety’ and, of course, politics. America is quick to label monsters as epic enemies and slow to recognise itself as a huge part of their creation, a parent to their birth. This is a highly original and relevant take on Beowulf, a feminist translation of which Headley is set to publish next year.

Dana has returned from war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a pregnancy. Large, blank spaces fill her head in place of the traumatic memories of what happened to her for the long while she was assumed dead. She hides away from the world to raise her son in isolation in an abandoned train station in some caves on a mountain, but little Gren is fascinated with the world below, particularly the community of Herot Hall, where he can hear another little boy practice piano, play outside and live a life without fear of others. The author is purposely vague about Gren’s appearance, and why should his appearance matter? He’s just a child, though he is soon seen as something terrifyingly other: “A wonder? A danger? A boy? A boy with brown skin?”

A voracious exploration of femininity, suburban malaise, societal pressures and politics

The second boy is Dill, the child of the reigning queen of Herot Hall, Willa. Gren sneaks into Herot Hall, a pristine and perfect suburban private community which exists in a wealthy bubble of its own, and the boys accept each other as easily and purely as children will: no-holds-barred in a filter-less friendship that immediately leaves an indelible mark on each child. But their worlds collide in a much more violent way once Gren is seen by Willa, setting off an epic battle that rages savagely for years to come in the hearts of their mothers. “We are each others’ nightmares,” says Dana, about the stark differences between the boys’ families.

The monstrous feminine is explored in every female character in The Mere Wife, whether it be Dana or Willa, or even the Greek chorus of the mothers of Herot Hall — the older women who run the place: Willa’s mother, her mother-in-law and the other grandmothers whose steel nerves have managed all sorts of lives into suffocating suburban submission. “There’s a long tradition that says women gossip, when in fact women are the memory of the world,” explains this chorus. “We keep the family trees and the baby books. We manage the milk teeth. We keep the census of diseases, the records of divorces, battles and medals. We witness the wills. We wash the weddings out of the bedsheets.”

In Old English, the word used to describe both Beowulf and Grendel’s (one of the poem’s three primary antagonists) mother is Aglæca — it is translated as ‘warrior’ or ‘hero’ in the masculine and ‘wretch’ or ‘monster’ in the feminine, as The Mere Wife’s opening page tells us. But why is Grendel’s mother a monster? Because she reacts violently to her child being threatened? Because she cuts down those who attack the being she made and birthed? Then every mother is a monster at some point, Willa included.

She runs her hand over the footprint and blurs it with her palm until it’s obliterated, gone as her son, gone as her party, gone as any version of Willa that has ever lived a life she understood. Her hand is wounded. A drop of blood wells up and spills over onto the carpet. Claws, she remembers. Fur. Monster, she remembers. Monster. — Excerpt from the book

Headley wants to know what makes a monster and who gets to decide what is monstrous about the other. Why is Dana seen a monster and Willa as a heroic survivor of a terrible tragedy? Dana is the veteran of a war: an actual survivor of an actual war, but she is the one seen as the vicious creature attacking the sanctity of Willa’s perfect American dream. And yet Willa is undeniably a monster too. Perfect Willa, with her icy blonde exterior, with her secret fears and doubts and desperate sadness is just as vicious when she wishes — and instigates — death on those who hurt her son. She may not be the one wielding an actual gun, but Willa is a weapon nonetheless. Her empty days are just waiting to be filled with a purpose and in Dana’s monstrosity, she finds that purpose. She also finds Ben Woolf, a bored police officer who wants nothing more than to prove himself in the tiny community where there is no crime. He finally gets his chance when Willa gives him a dragon to slay. But is the world “large enough for monsters and heroes at once”?

Headley’s writing is visceral and evocative. A tattoo is turned into a “scar in the shape of someone Willa used to know”, Dana is a “stack of broken dishes in the shape of a woman”, the entire world “is a mess of blood and teeth” and a piano is “an act of savage warfare disguised as culture.” The Mere Wife contains some incredibly unabashed, glorious prose wound tight in places and spooling out in others in rhythms that only Headley can maintain for the length of a novel. She has always written with such rebellious abundance and with The Mere Wife she proves that no matter what the genre or premise, she is able to deliver a sharper, more effective and increasingly intelligent blow with each novel.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

The Mere Wife
By Maria Dahvana
Headley
Farrar, Straus &
Giroux, US
ISBN: 978-0374208431
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 9th, 2018