‘Our Wives Under The Sea’, a poetic but unnerving literary horror

I once saw this book described as a ‘literary horror’ in a Goodreads review online, and immediately thought that no other phrase aptly described the kind of story this is.

Our Wives Under The Sea is author Julia Armfield’s debut novel, coming after her critically acclaimed collection of short stories Salt Slow. It follows wives Leah and Miri in the wake of Leah’s return from an unexpectedly long underwater research trip. She was meant to be gone for three weeks, but weeks turned into months, of which Leah was away for six. Upon her long-awaited return she’s different, to say the very least, and Miri is painfully aware of it: she continues to miss her wife even when she’s sat on the sofa in other room. They’re in close proximity but there’s a tangible distance between them now, one Miri is unsure how to reckon with. Chapters provide the women’s alternative perspectives, giving us the story as holistically as possible. At first, I found it somewhat difficult to get into this book – I kept stopping and starting – and had to really commit to wanting to read and finish this. And after a few short but solid chapters, I was fully committed.

Every couple, I think, enjoys its own mythology, recollections like notecards to guide you round an exhibition: Fig A. Portrait of the couple dancing at a colleague’s Catholic wedding.

Our Wives Under The Sea, Julia Armfield, p. 16.

Both Miri and Leah fill us in on their mythology – on the ways Leah reassures her wife that she in fact a kind person, of how Leah would grab Miri’s legs and move them as if she were cycling until she laughed – and it is beautiful. The love between them is evident, and it’s palpable and substantial, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world for them to be together. It’s not an epic love story characterised by some emotional rollercoaster, but rather one that is quiet, perhaps a little understated, but still beautiful nonetheless.

The novel is divided into five sections named for the zones of ocean depth: first is the Sunlight Zone, followed by the Twilight, Midnight, then the Abyss, and Hadal Zones accordingly. As one descends further, light is less and less visible from above the water. At the very bottom of the ocean, where infrequently-seen creatures dwell, is complete and utter darkness. Beyond the obvious of Leah’s occupation as a marine biologist, or the significance of the sea in this story, Armfield’s creative decision to divide the book this way was a smart one. I found the zones of relative darkness corresponded well with the changing tone of the book. Over time, Miri’s descriptions of her wife Leah, with her swimmer’s body and inability to be bored, begin to feel more and more distant from the Leah presented both to her and to us as the reader. Soon, Miri is forced to reckon with the painful realisation that both her wife, who she lovingly calls ‘her Leah’, and the life they once shared are no more.

I feel for a moment that I understand the whole bright dailiness of our life before the this: the morning glances at the bathroom sink, the spit of toothpaste, the cramp and comfort of our hall and living room and kitchen – understand it and also understand that it is gone.

Our Wives Under The Sea, Julia Armfield, p. 131.

Armfield is clearly an incredible writer, and this became more and more obvious as I read. There’s an air of poetry and lyricism in her words that made the novel’s events particularly visceral, as if they were grounded in reality despite the obvious elements of fantasy and surrealism. More than that, Our Wives Under The Sea began to feel less and less like a story written by an author for a reader, and more and more as if Miri and Leah were genuinely recounting their lives to someone keen to listen, someone that had to listen. Both of their perspectives are heartbreaking for different reasons, and there is a sadness that becomes overwhelming by the novel’s end. As well as this, Armfield strategically works in a sense of mystery that felt quite unnerving – especially given the dual-perspective approach. It’s increasingly unsettling, in a way that makes you fear what’s yet to come while still being devastated by what’s already happened.

It’s easy to understand why someone might love a person but far more difficult to push yourself down into that understanding, to pull it up to your chin like bedclothes and feel it settling around you as something true.

Our Wives Under The Sea, Julia Armfield, p. 51.

Grief is a central theme here. As Miri finds herself grieving for her newly-returned but impossibly-different wife, she reflects on what it was like to grieve her mother, who died as a result of a genetic disease of some kind, one that Miri – a hypochondriac – wonders if she has inherited. There is so much in Miri’s experiences, that it feels impossible not to care about her, to feel pity at her moments of sadness or frustration. There were quite a few questions left unanswered by the novel’s end, particularly around the apparently nefarious Centre for Marine Enquiry that sent Leah underwater in the first place, but I do think that’s part of its what makes it so great. These are questions you don’t need answered, not really, not in order to understand or appreciate the novel for what it is at its core.

Our Wives Under The Sea was an incredible read about a love story gone awry due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. The feelings of grief, loss, and helplessness are potent and difficult, and by the story’s end there’s a heavy air of anguish that settles into your chest. It’s horrific, though not in the ways you might anticipate. Between Armfield’s ability to simultaneously wax poetic and create an atmosphere of extreme trepidation, the phrase ‘literary horror’ is more than appropriate here. Having read this, I’m keen to read Salt Slow some day.

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