The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley; Susan Bennett, narrator (Macmillan Audio 978-1-42729783-9, $44.99, CD, 9 hr., unabridged [also available as a digital download]) July 2018.
Maria Dahvana Headley transforms Beowulf into a modern, vicious, and lyrical story about racial, class, and gender divides, and the messy legacy of gentrification. Dana Mills was an African-American marine fighting a desert war when the enemy slaughtered her team, kidnapped her, faked her execution, and arranged a mysterious encounter that left her with a missing eye and pregnant with a not-quite-human baby. She makes her way to land previously owned by her family and hides out in an abandoned underground train station inside a mountain with her son, Gren, raising him to fear everyone but her. The land has been appropriated to build a mostly white suburban community called Herot Hall where the leading family in the community is plastic surgeon Roger Herot, his high-strung wife Willa, and their young son Dylan. Frustrated by his mother’s restrictions and lonely for company, young Gren creeps outside of their mountain hideaway and down to the houses below, where he forms a secret friendship with Dylan, a relationship that will have devastatingly bloody implications for both them and their families.
Susan Bennett’s sweetly polished voice wonderfully evokes the barely suppressed rage of Willa, who battles to preserve the status quo that imprisons her, even as another part of her struggles to escape. Bennett is also raw enough for the openly expressed fury and fierce protectiveness of Dana. In addition, she capably offers the cooler but dangerously firm perspectives of the two Greek choruses of the novel: the ancient nature spirits of the area and the matriarchs of the Herot Hall community (Willa’s mother and her cronies), both of whom observe, comment on, and subtly but noticeably influence the action in defense of their own version of the status quo.
Ultimately, listening to the book seems more appropriate than reading it. Inspired by an epic which was more likely to be declaimed rather than read, the musical prose of the novel heavily references an oral tradition, exhorting us to “Hark!” and “Sing!”
It’s been years since I reviewed a previous novel by Headley (Queen of Kings, about a vampiric Cleopatra). I enjoyed that production, but this is at a whole other level – a pretty amazing one.
This review and more like it in the January 2019 issue of Locus.
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