Book Review: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley

Rating:  ★★★★1/2

“The world isn’t large enough for heroes and monsters at once. There’s too much danger of confusion between the two categories.”

I finished this book a week ago, and I have been delaying writing the review, because honestly, there’s no way I can do it justice.  The Mere Wife is a contemporary retelling of Beowulf.  Not only does it move at an exciting pace, while also containing lots of twists and turns, it’s largely allegorical, and gives the reader a lot to think about in just three hundred short pages.

I’m going to start by saying, generally, contemporary settings and times are not my thing.  I read for escapism.  I prefer fantastical places, settings, events, characters, etc.  I picked it up mostly because people who have far better bookish taste than me were interested in a buddy read, but also because I think there’s something incredibly vicious about modern day suburban life: competing with the Joneses, whose grass is greener, that sort of thing.

It was even better than I had hoped.  The dedication reads: “For anonymous and all the stories she told.”  I knew right from the beginning I was in for a treat, something sharp and cutting and unapologetic.  Moving onto the prologue, Headley opens with:

“Say it.  The beginning and the end at once.  I’m face down in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead.”

This is one of the best prologues I have ever read.  This book starts with a bang, hooks its claws in you and refuses to let go until the end.

One of our MCs, Willa Herot, is savage in such a way that I couldn’t wait to see what she would do next.  Her character and her thoughts are incredibly loathsome, and yet, she’s also really sympathetic.  Her life has never been her own.  She’s expected, as the wife of a doctor, to be pretty and perfect, meet all the standards everyone has set for her, and hold up her husband all the while.  Not to complain at his shortcomings, only work on improving her own.

“You don’t really own anything. Nothing is yours forever, not your body, not your youth, not even your mind.”

Dana Mills is our second MC.  She’s a veteran, and she suffers from PTSD.  She’s Gren’s mother, and all she wants is to see her son grow up safe.  Dana acts as a catch all stand in for most of the oppressed peoples of the world.  She’s incredibly sympathetic, and arguably the hero of our story.  Her chapters are heartbreaking, and filled with bone chilling statements, and observations of the world we live in.

“The world has teeth and claws, and my baby thinks he can walk in it.  Hotel balconies and back rooms, speeches given in public, children marching, fists up, nothing to shield their hearts from bullets.  They shoot, walk away, let him bleed…My son becomes a place where the sidewalk is stained.”

Headley takes these two women, who couldn’t be more different, and somehow manages to give them common ground.  She does the same with Dylan and Grendel.  The lines between everything, hero and monster, haves and have nots, become blurred.

My favorite chapters are the Greek Chorus chapters.  Sometimes they are told from the POV of the mothers of Herot Hall, sometimes hounds, sometimes ghosts.  They are written in first person plural and invoke a sense of war, marching forward, collectively, against any threat.  Every single chorus chapter absolutely blew me away.

“Do you think sixty-five-year-old women don’t go to war? We are always at war. Our husbands spent their lives in comfortable chairs. Have we ever sat in comfortable chairs? No. Yoga balls, haunches tensed.”

It was an empowering read for women, no matter your background, and I loved every glorious moment.  But Headley manages to comment on many issues.  Race and racism.  Oppression.  Politics.  War.  Hero worship.  Feminism.  The 1%.  It’s a book that has something for everyone, carefully dissecting and picking apart everyday modern life.

“The famous ones kept going, video, photo, headlines, and here they still are, running countries, pressing buttons, standing in offices, insisting all the money in the world belongs to them, pushing secrets through votes, starving the bottom so the top can feast.”

My only real complaint about the book, was the ending.  A lot of things weren’t quite clear to me about the end.  It felt very rushed.  I had a lot of questions.  In a book that’s only 300 pages long, I felt like there was plenty of time to dig a little deeper into the details.  It’s also the end chapters that deviate the most from the Beowulf storyline itself, where everything prior to that had been pretty much on point.  The ending is the only reason it wasn’t quite a five star read for me.

I highly recommend this both as a thought provoking, literary read, and for readers who just want to be entertained.

I do have content warnings- but I hate to leave plot spoilers in my reviews- so if you need them, please comment below so I can let you know.

 

15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

    • I almost didn’t review it- it’s one of those books that leaves you sort of speechless. I still don’t feel like I did it justice.

      Part of it is that I know, objectively, it really is a 5 star read. It’s brilliant through and through. Subjectively, it didn’t really end how I wanted it to. I’m just being whiny.

      That’s so cool you got to meet her! I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for more of her work. She wrote a historical fiction piece about Cleopatra I want to check out.

      Like

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