Fiction: ‘Beowulf’ Gets a 21st-Century Update

THE MERE WIFE
By Maria Dahvana Headley
308 pp. MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.

The Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf” has a historic place in English literature. But how much contemporary cultural resonance does it have? Plenty, Maria Dahvana Headley suggests in her new novel, “The Mere Wife” — if you mess around with it enough.

Quick recap of “Beowulf”: A monster named Grendel is slaughtering the denizens of Heorot, a Danish feudal stronghold, on a nightly basis. From across the Kattegat, a warrior called Beowulf arrives with his comrades-in-arms, offering to save them. In battle, he defeats Grendel, wrenching off the monster’s shoulder and arm as proof of his victory. Problem solved? Not quite. Grendel’s vengeful mother soon ravages Heorot. But Beowulf tracks her down beneath the burning/freezing waters of a “mere,” where he kills her and beheads the corpse of her son. Later in his life, in his own land, Beowulf confronts a troublemaking dragon. Both die.

The action is gory and the monsters colorful, especially the dragon. The do-gooding hero is also keen for riches and fame, and he’s not subtle about it. Headley (whose previous books include “Magonia” and “Queen of Kings”) isn’t the first writer to approach this tale from the monster’s point of view; John Gardner’s 1971 novel, “Grendel,” did the same. But “The Mere Wife” brings the story into the 21st century in a curious way.

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Here, the mother of Grendel’s counterpart, Gren, is a traumatized American veteran, Dana Mills, who inexplicably escapes from a hostage situation after her beheading is broadcast to the world. She’s six months pregnant from an encounter she doesn’t remember. Once she returns to the United States and gives birth, she and her son take refuge in the caverns of a mountain with an abandoned railway station at its heart and a sulfurous lake at its foot (once the site of a hot-springs resort). During her absence, an upscale gated community, Herot Hall, has sprung up on her old stamping grounds.

Gren isn’t like other children. “His eyes are gold,” Dana tells us. “He’s all bones and angles. He has long lashes, like black feathers. He’s almost as tall as I am and he’s only 7. To me, he looks like my son. To everyone else? I don’t know. A wonder? A danger? A boy? A boy with brown skin?” Gren is a changeable figure, depending on who’s observing him. He has claws that can do a fair amount of damage. And he’s as curious about Herot Hall as his mother is wary of it.

Those interests are reciprocal. Willa Herot, wife to a plastic surgeon, Roger, grew up thinking the mountain was haunted. However, their 7-year-old son, Dylan, is at ease with his surroundings, and especially pleased to have a pal who wanders down from the mountain to play with him. But when he describes Gren to his parents, they’re convinced he’s an imaginary friend. At the same time, Willa believes a “wild animal” is prowling their home, but Ben Woolf, a policeman who’s also a veteran like Dana, has his doubts. Then things take a bloody turn.

Headley’s jabs at suburban smugness are fun (“To us, and people like us” is a favorite Herot Hall toast), and Dana’s hallucinatory flashbacks to the desert war are both harrowing and disorienting (“I don’t know what real is, I don’t know what alive is”). Headley’s prose can be stark, lacerating, insightful (“If events don’t make sense, a story grows to cover up the confusion”), but it also has its over-the-top lapses. “The trees are saw blades stuck in the snow,” Willa thinks at a crisis point. “The snake in her vein wriggles and turns to an earthworm, a pale pink shudder making its way in and out of her body.” The metaphorical flights grow especially wild and woolly in the book’s last lap.

But the role reversals Headley devises — and the way she adapts an ancient tale into a 21st-century struggle between haves and have-nots, brown-skinned and white, damaged and intact — are largely effective. Genuine wisdom sometimes emerges. “The world isn’t large enough for monsters and heroes at once,” Ben reflects toward the end. “There’s too much danger of confusion between the two categories.” That seems especially true in Headley’s imaginative realm, where identifying monsters and monstrous acts has less to do with fact than perception.

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