Friday, 10 August 2018

Book review: The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley (2018)

This work of speculative fiction started well but it ultimately reminded me of a book by another woman author that I had started to read: ‘The Natural Way of Things’ by the Australian Charlotte Wood. Wood’s book won the Stella Prize in 2016. It opens with a woman who finds herself in some sort of institution that she cannot understand, let alone get out of. There is a guard whose good offices she relies on for her wellbeing. The claustrophobic feeling I had reading the book bid me put it down before getting much further than this. It felt like I was being railroaded. There was no freedom for my imagination to roam in this circumscribed world where only misery beckons from the interior of the book.

In Dahvana Headley’s book, you are given the American version of the same kind of suffocating impasse. Americans lap up anything that has in it a solitary rogue, so in ‘The Mere Wife’ the author gives us Dana Mills, an ex-soldier living with PTSD who escapes from enemy captivity in the desert pregnant and then is somehow able to get out of the US military institution she is being held in. She takes herself back to the town she had lived in as a girl and gives birth alone inside an abandoned railway station in a mountainside. The “mere” of the title is a kind of small lake that’s also in the mountain. She raises her son Gren by herself, subsisting on nuts and trapped animals. When the book opens the boy is aged seven years.

The author also gives us Willa Herot, who lives in a gated community next to the mountain where Dana and Gren reside. Willa is married to a plastic surgeon who is also part of a family that runs a retail store that supplies goods to the town, and probably much else beside. You can literally see the wheels turning in the author’s head as she juxtaposes the two mothers in overlapping sections of the narrative, depicting the rugged, individualistic existence of the heroic Dana and the cosseted, mundane existence of the suburban Willa. I got about 15 percent of the way through this book before giving up.

The gears grind the characters relentlessly in their crushing motion and any poetry is absent. Why would any mother want her son to grow up illiterate and barely able to speak or unable control his own emotions because he’s been deprived of social interaction during his formative years? And how could a mother and child live within hearing of local residents and still remain hidden for seven years? It’s a con job. The cinematic analogue of Dana is of course Sarah Connor in the Terminator films: a single mother struggling against incredible odds to save humanity. Baloney.

The stories that Americans tell themselves to distract their attention from the fact that they are being exploited by a governing class that uses a narrative of individual effort to justify its manipulation of the political process to benefit a tiny elite!

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