Julia Armfield – Our Wives Under the Sea

October sounds like the right time to get into some good scary story, which prompted to peruseto my virtual stash of horror novels, and to pick up this book in particular. While technically belonging to the genre, however, Our Wives Under the Sea is actually closer to a slow, melancholic meditation on grief an loss than to a traditional horror – which makes it much more unsettling than any amount of gore-splattering jump scares.

Title: Our Wives Under the Sea

Author: Julia Armfield

Publication Date: 3 March 2022

Genre: Horror

Pages: 240

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Representation: Main characters in a sapphic relationship

Content Warning: Body horror – Grief – Confinement – Death – Death of parent – Terminal illness – Suicide

Synopsis

Miri thinks she has got her wife back, when Leah finally returns after a deep-sea mission that ended in catastrophe. It soon becomes clear, though, that Leah is not the same. Whatever happened in that vessel, whatever it was they were supposed to be studying before they were stranded on the ocean floor, Leah has brought part of it back with her, onto dry land and into their home.

Moving through something that only resembles normal life, Miri comes to realize that the life that they had before might be gone. Though Leah is still there, Miri can feel the woman she loves slipping from her grasp.

Our Wives Under The Sea is the debut novel from Julia Armfield, the critically acclaimed author of Salt Slow. It’s a story of falling in love, loss, grief, and what life there is in the deep deep sea.

Form & Style: The novel alternates between the first-person points of view of the two main characters, Miri and Leah. The former, speaking in present tense, is focused on describing her life after her wife returned from a long oceanic expedition, mysteriously and unsettlingly changed, as well as on recalling events that shaped their relationship. The latter, in the past tense, recount her experiences during the aforementioned mission, in which she was locked for several months in a submarine at the bottom of the sea.

Such a stylistic choice is significant of a deeper implication: in fact, while Miri is struggling coming to terms with her current situation, but is ultimately charged with the task of addressing it and moving on, Leah is speaking as if she had no present or future; as if, despite existing in a space adjacent to that of her wife, she had nothing left but memories.

The two narrative voices are also set apart by the more frequent presence of scientific terminology in Leah’s chapters, which is reflective of her career and interests.

Setting: Set in our world – presumably, in nowadays’ England – the novel is actually centered in a few enclosed, claustrophobic spaces; the most obvious being the submarine, where Leah is literally stuck with her crewmates for months on end, an experience that brings them closer and closer to the supernatural call of the abyss, as well as to their own lingering madness. Miri’s apartment, however, is almost as oppressive: a place that used to be a refuge of comfort and intimacy, but is now made unsettling and inhospitable by Leah’s silent, alien-like presence.

Characters: Our Wives Under the Sea is structured as a silent dialogue between two characters that, despite their physical proximity, are as unable to communicate as if they existed in two different timelines. While at the moment they are both stuck in their complementary states of alienation, through flashbacks and memories we get to see who they used to be – two complex, endearing, neurotic women who deeply coveted each other, but weren’t always able to reach through their personal distances. Throughout the novel, Miri reveals a subtle but recurring tendency to idealise their relationship, occasionally facing, but actively rejecting, her fear that their love may falter, or anyway not entirely fit her needs. Despite the surreal premise of the novel, both characters are fleshed out, lifelike, often unsettlingly relatable.

Plot: The book alternates two equally slow-paced narrations, with sparse events and extensive introspective digressions. Leah’s plotline is the one more directly charged with suspense and dread, dealing with her traumatic deep-sea misadventure, whose implications aren’t fully revealed until the end. Miri’s point of view, however, is perhaps even more chilling despite its apparently mundane setting, as we see her grieving her nominally still living wife, at first hanging desperately to hopes and memories, then gradually and painfully coming to terms with reality. While the novel in imbued with an undeniable aura of mystery, there is no major plot twist or disconcerting reveal, but rather a sense of inevitability: at the end of the novel, much like Miri, we can’t help but see it couldn’t have ended any other way, no matter how much our heart had grasped at straws along the way.

Themes & Overall Thoughts: For all its supernatural elements and occasional body horror, Our Wives Under the Sea is a book about grief: specifically, about the process of mourning not so much someone, but our idea of someone, as well as our common dreams. Miri often draws connections between her wife’s predicament and that of her mother, who died of a degenerative disease that had gradually eroded both her body and her personality. Leah’s transformation, however, also works as a metaphor of all the ways our loved ones can change over the years, and of the impact it may have on our relationship. Miri hangs tight to a much coveted illusion of stability, trying to conceptualise things as measurable and controllable, but is ultimately forced to face a reality as fluid and as the dark waters of the deep sea. Which is what makes this book insightfully beautiful and absolutely unsettling.

Comments

Leave a Reply

%d