Dana Wills is dead. That’s what everyone thinks, and she’s happy to keep it that way. She was beheaded live on TV, after all, a soldier taken hostage in a desert war she never really cared about. She came back to herself dazed, stranded in the middle of the sands, six months pregnant, with no memory of what went before. Now she’s home, with her son. And, with her soldier’s ruthlessness, Dana will do anything to protect her Gren. She heads to a mountain above the place where she grew up, her home now flattened beneath the shining enclave of Herot Hall. Here wealthy women jostle for status within their shining, perfect homes. Life is a round of cocktail parties, gossip and side-eye judging, and Willa Herot is beginning to chafe at the edges of her picture-perfect existence. Wife to Robert Herot, and mother to seven-year-old Dylan, she should be at the top of the tree. But, when Dylan starts chattering about an imaginary friend called Gren, Willa begins to panic. A masterful, forceful modern retelling of Beowulf, this is a tale of dangerous women, and the two boys caught between them.
What’s normal? Dana has raised her son as best she can, hidden in a cave on the mountain where no one can find him. Made paranoid by the war, traumatised, having watched her friends shot or blown up, she’s determined that no one is going to get at her son. And so she raises Gren in the secrecy of a forgotten railroad station, hidden within the mountain, and in the tunnels and caverns beneath. Beside the cave lies the mere: a place of ghosts and bones, history and warm, sulphur-tainted water. Once people came here to take the waters; now they shy away for fear of ghosts. And Dana likes it that way. She does her best. She hunts for her child, teaches him to read and write, and all is well until, one day, she realises that he’s been watching the people down below in Herot Hall. Dana has done her best to keep the world from her son; but she can’t keep him from the world. When he becomes fascinated with the little boy of his own age, who lives in the glass house down at the bottom of the mountain, events are set in place which threaten to shatter their secret existence forever.
Willa has almost forgotten who she was before: the muse, the hellraiser, the girl saved by her mother from a reckless first marriage and pushed into a second, more appropriate match: her senses dulled by vodka and pills; living her glittering, perfect life under the critical eyes of her mother, her mother-in-law and their friends; living the power-couple existence with a husband who has a wandering eye and little common sense; shackled to a life that was never meant to be hers. Deadened to a state of near-paralysis, Willa nevertheless sees things: the strange claw-marks on the windows of her home; the scratches on their piano, where Dylan claims to have played with his friend Gren. And it’s Willa who calls the police; who welcomes the buff, tall, taciturn officer Ben Woolf – a man who has a reputation for being a hero; and who demands an investigation into the creature that’s been in her house. An investigation that takes a darker turn when, one frenetic New Year’s Eve, a strange woman in fatigues bursts into the Herots’ party and then Dylan is carried off by something. No one quite sees what, but Willa is sure of what she knows. A monster has stolen her son, and a price must be paid.
Headley invites us to think again about women’s roles in these situations. The book, tellingly, starts with an old English glossary of three words. ‘Aglaeca’, a masculine noun: ‘fighter, warrior, hero’. ‘Aglaec-wif’, the feminine version of that noun: ‘wretch, monster, hell-bride, hag’. Grendel’s mother becomes the latter in the original poem, but Headley gives her the dignity and ferocity of the masculine incarnation: a woman who’s been trained to kill; who can, indeed, do little else, and who has raised her son in desperate isolation. Dana and Ben Woolf are two sides of the same coin, both former soldiers stranded in a world they don’t understand and don’t fit into. And what of the third word in the glossary? It can only be that single, demanding word which opens Beowulf: perhaps the most famous of Old English words: ‘Hwaet!’ Headley uses the various translations of ‘Hwaet’ as titles for the parts of her novel and, within each part, each chapter begins with that particular word: ‘So’, ‘Hark’, ‘Listen’, ‘What’. It’s a playful tribute to the original: a nod to the multiplicity of meanings and the ultimate untranslatability of that single imperative. I rather liked it. It has the same kind of ambivalence as the book’s title. Who is the ‘mere wife’? Willa, in the derogatory, belittling sense of ‘mere’? Or Dana, reflecting her deep connection with the mere in the mountain?
Woven in with the tale of the two mothers – whose chapters weave in and out like the workings of a loom – are chapters told either by the ghosts of the mountain or by the ‘mothers’, the group of fearsome old wives and widows who include Willa’s mother, her mother-in-law and their friends. These daunting ladies are the judges and supervisors of life in Herot Hall, ready to catch out any woman who shirks her duty or fails to match their high standards. Like the ghosts, they act as a chorus, a group which merges into a single voice, united in their disapproval, their ambitions or their actions. And this novel has something of a Greek tragedy, or even a Jacobean one, drenched in blood and dark plots, woven in with the silent, watching force of memory within the mountain. Written with occasional flashes of poetic cadence, blurring the lines between good and bad, inviting us to sympathise with both boys – the overprivileged, unloved boy in the glass house, and the loved but lonely boy on the mountain – and reminding us that women can become warriors when their children are at stake.
Deeply moving, powerful and exciting, this is a strong adventure story in its own right; but it gains an extra layer when read in the light of Beowulf, whose themes it reworks so effectively and with such simple yet unforgettable impact.
P.S. I’ve just realised that I’ve read one of Headley’s short stories, written for Tor.com: Some Gods of El Paso. Similarly familiar and yet mythic, it’s well worth looking into as a complement to The Mere Wife.