Maria Dahvana Headley’s bold new novel, The Mere Wife (MCD, June), is a retelling of Beowulf set against the backdrop of contemporary America and dealing with subjects such as PTSD and economic inequality. But to hear Headley tell it, a key moment of inspiration came when she first sat down with Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road. “I grew up in rural, weird, survivalist Idaho,” she says. “So the notion of Revolutionary Road, where the misery is the suburb, was jarring to me, because the suburbs to me as a kid always seemed like success and potential—a fixed life, a happy and functional life.”
Headley’s books span a host of styles and genres: she’s written YA novels (Magonia and Aerie), a memoir (The Year of Yes), and a novel set among royalty and immortals in ancient Egypt (Queen of Kings).
The story of Beowulf has been told and retold numerous times over the centuries. A quick primer: a monster, Grendel, menaces Herot Hall, the palace of the Danish king. A warrior, Beowulf, arrives and defeats both Grendel and his mother; later, Beowulf faces a dragon and is less lucky. Some may be familiar with Seamus Heaney’s acclaimed 1999 translation, or John Gardner’s revisionist 1971 novel Grendel.
The Mere Wife’s version of Herot Hall is a suburban development built in the shadow of a mountain and on the ashes of a working-class community. And though the original story of Beowulf is largely framed as the story of two men, Headley has centered her retelling around a pair of women, and in doing so questions exactly what makes a hero heroic and what makes a monster monstrous.
Headley became aware of these issues in the narrative after looking at the original text of the poem in Old English. (Her own verse translation of Beowulf is due to be published in 2019.) “I was writing this book in 2015, so we were at the beginning of the Trump moment—we were at the beginning of knowing that some of these politics were starting to shift and that people were behind it—and I was interested in that notion of that kind of hero,” she says. She points out the same word has been translated variously as hero and monster from the original. “It’s the same word used for Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel’s mother,” Headley adds. “The feminine version of it is usually translated as hag or monster; the masculine version, for Beowulf, is translated as hero, but it’s the same word.” It’s out of that linguistic ambiguity that much of the power of this novel arises.
The Mere Wife opens in the aftermath of war: Dana, a soldier, is taken captive by extremists and mysteriously escapes death. She returns to her hometown pregnant and gives birth to Gren; the two then take refuge within the mountain outside of Herot Hall. “I was thinking about the ways that we make war on the backs of people who are marginalized within the war, even as soldiers,” Headley says, citing the rescue of Jessica Lynch, who was taken prisoner during the Iraq War, and the media narrative that surrounded it as one inspiration for this aspect of her novel.
“When I started to research the discussion of translations for Grendel’s mother, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s all there. This is a solider who has PTSD. This is a veteran,’ ” Headley says. It’s Dana’s scars, literal and metaphorical, that cause her to keep her son Gren—who even from a young age seems somehow different from other children—away from the world.
“This is a book about the creation of monsters—because of confusion, uncertainty, racist fears, and fears of the other,” Headley notes. “Even within her, [Dana] has a fear that is pretty justified: that her son will be seen as so other that he will be killed.”
This mother-son pair, Dana and Gren, exists in sharp contrast to another: Willa, who is married to the wealthy suburban developer, and her son, Dylan. Each mother is intent on protecting her son, while the two children secretly become friends.
It’s at this point in the narrative that The Mere Wife’s Beowulf counterpart arrives. “The story of Beowulf to me is interesting because in the original, Beowulf is a flawed man searching for validation of his masculinity,” Headley says.
In the novel, Beowulf becomes Ben Woolf, a veteran small-town police officer in way over his head. The fact that he shares a surname with Virginia Woolf is no coincidence. “I’m interested in the way that Woolf wrote about heroic narrative, really,” Headley says. “I’m interested in how she shaped her own heroic narrative. The list of really, really famous female writers is not as long as it should be, but she’s one of them, and I thought it would be interesting to align Ben and his ongoing discomfort with her.”
For Headley, there was no shortage of ways in which the story of Beowulf overlapped with contemporary concerns and anxieties. “One of the things that I’m constantly thinking about is the way that hero and villain myths have shaped the culture that we live in,” she says, “and also the ways that we justify ourselves in terms of being allowed to colonize and gentrify aggressively, allowed to resegregate, and the ways that we make that seem plausible to ourselves—the way that we justify police violence, another hero-villain motif.”
Early in our conversation, Headley described her childhood as having survivalist elements. Much of The Mere Wife consists of scenes of a mother and son living in a harsh environment. “It was very easy for me to write those parts from my own experience as a child being raised with a father who is very intelligent and very unhinged,” Headley says. “I don’t necessarily think that Dana is very unhinged. I think she’s logical. She knows what the world is like, and she’s afraid, and she’s taking extreme measures. But my father was a person who was very tempted by the world, but he also felt that the world was going to come and create giant problems. He was not your traditional survivalist.”
As Headley wrote and revised her novel, the state of American politics continued to inform its shape. “It was already a political book, but then I would say it became more political,” she says. “Because just the knowledge of how easy it is to institute an other, with just a few words—to say, ‘That person is a monster’… That’s what we’ve been looking at now for the last couple of years: constant declarations of monsterhood.”
In The Mere Wife, Headley finds an ideal balance between the accumulated weight of old stories and the contemporary issues keeping some people awake at night. For her, that’s an essential part of the power of storytelling—something she’s especially learned through her writings for younger readers.
“You can change the world with stories,” Headley says. “These stories changed the world. Beowulf changed the world. So I’m maybe slightly utopian in that regard.”
Tobias Carroll is the author of the novel Reel and the story collection Transitory.