Wednesday, 10 November 2021

A modern day Beowulf

The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley's The Mere Wife opens with a female soldier, Dana Mills, "facedown in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead." It's a powerful beginning which draws the reader in, written in the present tense with short, punchy sentences. It hints at an optimistic future too, as Dana's only comfort is the memory of "a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."

Unfortunately the rest of the book didn't meet the expectations of its fantastic prologue. The use of the present tense continues throughout the story. It's unrelenting and tiring, as is the device of short sentences that are merely lists of words. For example, Dana visits the library and after the librarian greets her, "Miss?" to which Dana answers, "Yes?" the remainder of the paragraph reads, "The smell of mint tea. Carpet lint, old books, flowers on the call desk, wool jackets, shampoo, bricks on the walls, a stuffed animal in the children’s section, a dragon six feet long, balanced on top of the shelves. A castle made of sugar cubes. A pumpkin carved with a smiling face. It must be Halloween." It's overkill, like reading a shopping list. Then there's the annoying use of nouns to create new verbs such as diagramming, tantruming, or postcarding. It's all a bit too clever for its own good.

Once you get past the style, you realise that some of the chapters are told from the point of view not of individuals, but of groups of people, such as the town matriarchs. This works well, bringing to mind a sort of operatic chorale. The chapter narrated by a pack of sniffer dogs was less successful.

It's not a bad story; a modern day retelling of Beowulf, although you don't need to be familiar with the Old English myth. Dana Mills survives military service and returns to the USA injured, pregnant, homeless and without family. She hides in the caves of a mountain that overlooks her now redeveloped childhood home, and gives birth to a boy she names Gren. They survive in the shadow of the wealthy and privileged community of Herot Hall.

There are some interesting themes: the demonisation of certain types of people as monsters, society's expectations of mothers and women in general, gentrification, police brutality, war and its consequences. It also raises the question of the truth of stories. "You never understand the whole story until you’re at the end of it. If you’re the last one standing, you’re the one who ... tells it."

Perhaps it would have been a better read in normal times, but in these days of Covid the book was too miserable. None of the characters were happy and all their lives were wretched. It was a relief to reach the end.

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