In her captivating novel, Our Wives Under the Sea, Julia Armfield tenderly and credibly depicts the pain of absence, loss and transformation often experienced in romantic relationships.
Leah had been missing, deep beneath the sea, on a submarine mission gone wrong. Missing, presumed dead. Her wife Miri had begun to grapple with the space left by her absence, the way the absence of a lost loved one can be almost as much of a physical entity as their presence previously had been. Leah was missing, until she wasn’t, until she was back on dry land, back to Miri and their shared flat, their shared life. Except of course when people return from places, they are often not the same person they were before.
(I had a boyfriend who used to travel to Japan for long periods with work. When he was away I’d yearn for his return, and yet whenever he did, for the first few days he was always altered, somehow, by the distance or the jet lag, and not quite the person I had been expecting, a stranger to me even when I knew it was him. This novel takes that experience, one that many will be familiar with, and explores it to its furthest extreme).
Our Wives Under the Sea (Picador) by Julia Armfield picks up a short while after Leah’s return to the surface, when Miri is beginning to realise that the reunion she had so longed for is not the one she had imagined – when she is beginning to realise that the established parameters of their relationship have been changed, perhaps even warped beyond recognition. That the Leah who now sits beside her on the sofa, who has returned from her mission suffering from inexplicable nosebleeds and bleeding gums, a new compulsion for taking long baths and for holding her head under a running tap in the middle of the night, is not the same Leah she knew before.
The novel flips from chapter to chapter between two first person narratives. We hear from Miri as she tries to adjust to the returned presence of this strange yet familiar wife of hers and seeks answers to what happened beneath the ocean from the mysterious ‘Centre’, the scientific institution responsible for the submarine expedition. The Miri chapters are also full of memories: from the time when Leah was away and before that, of their past life together in all its stages, from early courtship to comfortable domesticity. Alternated with this are the Leah chapters which begin with an unexplained mechanical failure in the submarine deep under the sea’s surface and progress chronologically as the craft sinks ever deeper, as she and her crew mates try to understand what has happened to them, and try to survive.
Our Wives Under the Sea was all that I wanted it to be. This is not always a given with books that you have built up in your mind, anticipating their publication day with a tingle of excitement. But the excitement with Armfield’s novel was warranted; the thrill at my copy arriving in the post justified. From the opening page, I was fully captivated.
I also loved Our Wives Under the Sea for its modern gothic elements and its brilliantly rendered body horror. As in Armfield’s first book, Salt Slow, the theme of transformation is strongly present: physical transformation through illness (Miri’s mother who dies early on in the Miri-Leah relationship but suffers slow decline before this from some form of dementia) or whatever the deep sea explorers experienced that is causing Leah to bleed and her skin to acquire a silvery sheen and shed in the bath. True to the genre of body horror, Armfield doesn’t shy away from human physicality and the grotesque aspects of this, though she often sets a scene up before leaving the final conclusion to the reader’s imagination. Tongues probe cracked molars, blood seeps up through pores, skin is “dotted red as if pricked with needles”, a convulsing body vomits a shower of water from a salt-swollen mouth.
The gothic element also comes through in the building tension; underpinning both women’s narratives is a sustained low level thrum of it, more overt as we move forwards in time (and sink down in the ocean) in the ‘Leah’ chapters, coming face to face with the horrors of the deep, bodiless voices and a sourceless smell of burning flesh, but also present in the ‘Miri’ timeline as we learn more about ‘the Centre’ and are confronted with the increasingly gruesome and traumatic symptoms affecting Leah.
But these gothic and horror elements sit alongside a nuanced, three dimensional detailing of a queer relationship between two women and it is this love story that really made Our Wives Under the Sea stand out for me. Just as skillfully as she writes body horror, Armfield writes credibly and tenderly about romantic partnerships: from the early days when you are still discovering one another to the quiet joy of an established relationship and the self-sustaining two person ecosystem that comes with it. She captures the uniqueness of any relationship (“I want to explain her in a way that would make you love her, but the problem with this is that loving is something we all do alone, and through different sets of eyes”), building up the Miri-Leah partnership in its own unique detail, providing the in-jokes, the shared history, the moments of romance so that it is as believable a relationship as any I have read in a long time.
She does this so well that we, the reader, feel as acutely as Miri does the loss of the old Leah. The transformations featured in the novel are not just the physical ones. Captured too are the way relationships mutate and transform; “silence like a spine through the new shape our relationship has taken”. We too feel the grief that punctuates the novel, feel the soft sadness of loss, the sort of loss where you lose someone you love even though they live under the same roof as you – even as they are seated next to you on the sofa. So then, ultimately, the horror doesn’t come from the deep; the real horror comes from being confronted with our basest fears: human fragility and mortality, and the fear of losing someone we love right before our eyes, helpless to stop it.
Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea is published by Picador and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK. For more information about Julia Armfield’s work, see her website here or follow her on Twitter @JuliaArmfield.
Feature image includes an author photograph of Julia Armfield taken by Sophie Davidson.