I don’t often do spoiler warnings for novels, but I know some people tend to care about these things more when it comes to anything even remotely of the horror realm, so: This Our Wives Under The Sea review contains some spoilers.
“The deep sea is a haunted house: a place in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness.”
So begins Our Wives Under The Sea, Julia Armfield’s debut novel about two wives — one who went on a deep-sea submarine mission and came back wrong and one who grapples with the slowburn wreckage of her return.
In response to this opening sentence of this novel, I say…what the fuck? Do you ever read a sentence and just want to either 1. Lie down on the floor or 2. Scream? Because that’s how I felt reading the opening line of Our Wives Under The Sea and, if I’m being honest, how I felt reading most of Our Wives Under The Sea. Armfield’s first book was a collection of stories called Salt Slow and in it — especially in my favorite story, “Mantis” — her sentences are immaculate. But it’s easier to do that in the confines of a short story, harder to pull off sentence-level magic on every page of a novel where there’s more plotting and work to be done. And yet, Armfield has written a novel so chock-full of stunning sentences that that urge to scream needled its way into me throughout my first and second reads of the book. The language in Our Wives Under The Sea is like a fork’s tines moving through perfectly cooked fish: grotesque and lovely all at once, flesh and skin pulled from bone.
Our Wives Under The Sea alternates perspectives between wives Miri and Leah and is also broken into four sections named for the layers of the ocean, whose meanings are explained in one of Leah’s sections but whose names alone bear obvious symbolism: Sunlight Zone, Twilight Zone, Midnight Zone, Abyssal Zone, and Hadal Zone. We start in Miri’s perspective. Leah has recently returned from a research trip underwater that was supposed to last three weeks and instead lasted six months. During that expanse of time, we learn, Miri had no way of knowing what happened to her and limited information to go off of from the mysterious company Leah works for called The Centre. In Leah’s chapters, suffused with sea facts, we see what happened down below. Leah recounts the suffocating, maddening tale of her research trip gone south. She and her colleagues Matteo and Jelka lose power when their submarine hits a certain point in its descent, losing all communication with above. They sink, sink, sink, losing all concept of time, of space, of their lives on land.
When Leah surfaces, she is changed. She starts bleeding from the gums and then from the skin. She seems to leak water. She spends her days in the bathtub, running water, refuses to eat, seems to only like consuming table salt dissolved in water. She responds to Miri sometimes. She never leaves the flat. Most of the time, Miri and Leah merely orbit each other, both knowing something is wrong, something has changed, but being unable to fix it, their new reality not unlike a sunken submarine, days becoming mundane and monotonous, unknowable darkness pressing against their pores.
Miri’s sections are set after the surfacing, though she also fills in the blanks of the time when Leah was gone and she was in the dark about where her wife really was and whether she’d ever come back In both sections, but in Miri’s especially, we also get bursts of their relationship from before Leah’s long absence. For a book so steeped in themes of loss, of grief, of being haunted from within, it’s also full of tenderness and care, too. It’s the best execution of horror-romance I’ve ever seen (perhaps if you enjoyed The Haunting Of Bly Manor, you might also enjoy this book, because in my opinion, Our Wives Under The Sea does what The Haunting Of Bly Manor was trying to do but infinitely better).
So much of the novel is about unknowable things, and yet Armfield bakes intimacy and understanding into so many scenes. Miri thinks it impossible to capture her love for Leah for her imagined interlocutor:
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. It’s nearly impossible, at least in my experience, to listen to someone telling a story about a partner and not wish they’d get to the point a little fast: OK, so you’re saying he likes long walks, you’re saying she’s a Capricorn, skip to the end. 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.
I think Miri is right. And yet. Here Armfield is achieving the very thing she suggests impossible, making Leah and Miri’s relationship feel so spectacularly specific and knowable to the reader, something to settle inside of. Which, of course, makes the chestbursting of that romance all that much more difficult to bear. The loneliness of Leah’s underwater entrapment, the loneliness of Miri in its aftermath, it’s all so agonizing. Armfield provides little escape hatches from that agony through humor (“The therapist is tall and straight, both in the sense of her sexuality and in the sense of her everything else.”) and reminiscence on their life before. But those flashbacks do two contradictory things at once by injecting levity but also reminding us of all that has been lost, raising the stakes of this haunted relationship.
Armfield has a particular skill for lists. Using lists to develop characters and add specifics to a narrative is far from a novel concept, and yet Armfield is so damn good at them that they really feel like something special here. It is an impossible task to select a favorite list from the novel. I must have highlighted about two dozen of them. So, instead, I’ll pick one at random in hopes that it’ll lure you in for more:
After this, I sat on the floor of the kitchen and thought about Leah, about the shape of her feet and the way she spoke about her father, the special voice she used to talk to cats, her kind frown, her intonation, her fingernails. I thought about the time we kissed at the movies and a guy jerked off behind us and I complained to the management. I thought about fucking her on the floor of her uncle’s bathroom when we were staying over before a wedding. I thought about the way she often liked me to tell her what to do in bed. I thought about the day it first occurred to me that, should she die, there would be no one in the world I truly loved.
It feels important to note after that particular list that the book is also very sexy. Miri loves to mentally replay a story about Leah when she was 18, before Miri knew her, sharing vodka mixed with grocery store lemonade with her then-girlfriend after hours at the aquarium where Leah worked and making out next to a tank of sharks, tuna, sardines, stingrays. “When I returned to this story later, I would superimpose an eighteen-year-old me over the top of the girlfriend, scribbling her out and sketching my lines in more permanent ink.”
It is one of those strange things that love does, the urge to time-travel, to know someone at a point before you knew them. Our Wives Under The Sea considers all parts of Leah and Miri’s intimacy — from the exhileration falling in love, to the simple facts of living with another person, to sex and discovering one’s desires (Miri has slightly dommey energy alluded to throughout), to being so closely entwined that it simply isn’t possible to imagine life without one another.
Sex with Leah was a key and a lock, an opening up of something I had assumed impassable, like a door warped shut by the heat. Joy in the fact of pleasure, in the fact of my own relief. When we fucked, I felt myself distinct from my previous versions: the frenzied me, the panicked me, the me who had imagined herself poisoned by something she had never even done.
It is a sexy book, and it is a disturbing one. Images of teeth — pulled, bleeding, split, baring down — pop up throughout, of mouths doing wrong things, too. “At night, I dream I grit my teeth so hard that they break off like book matches.” Leah smells burning flesh in the submarine. One of her colleagues talks to someone who isn’t there. A strange noise wails around them. Dreams become nightmares but subtly so. Leah at one point dreams of Miri but walking on all fours and side-to-side, like a crab, and there’s something so humorous and horrifying about the image all at once. Armfield knows how to unsettle in small, precise, inescapable strokes. There’s body horror that sits inside soft moments of touch so that even the most haunting terrors in the book feel intimate, close. When an eye bursts, there isn’t an expulsion of blood but rather of water. The grotesque of Our Wives Under The Sea is all soft parts and wetness. It isn’t an obvious monster novel, but I consider it a monster novel in its own way. A deeply queer one, a deeply romantic one.
When Leah recounts her encounters with a ghost — long before her sub goes down — it’s a gentle haunting, a sweet and quiet story and nothing to fear. It’s not the most obvious things that terrify here. Horror, instead, is like the the things that live in the deepest parts of the ocean in this book — hard to see at first but, when you get a little closer, shocking and just slightly surreal.
Most nights, though I don’t mention this to Leah, I dream in molars spat across the bedclothes, hold my hands beneath my chin to catch the teeth that drop like water from the lip of a tap.
There’s incredible restraint to the horrors Armfield renders. Even Leah’s chapters, increasingly suffocating and numbing, do just enough work to convey just how disorienting Leah’s timeless, spaceless, hopeless life on the sunken submarine is. Her thoughts become repetitive, her memories hazy. Often, both characters willfully think of nothing as both as a means of survival and because their circumstances are so impossibly grim that it is possible to just shut everything down and coast.
At one point during Leah’s absence, Miri immerses herself in the world of an online RPG community of women playacting as the wives of men lost in space. It’s one of the many funny and strange bits of Our Wives Under The Sea. Later, she obsessively reads posts in another, more depressing online community of people with missing loved ones. Even if the RPG is pretend and the online support community is bleakly real, both are ultimately about the same thing: a lack. An ache caused not by something that isn’t there.
“Miri said this to me once: Every horror movie ends the way you know it will,” Leah recalls in one of her sections near the end. Much like Miri’s thoughts on it being impossible to explain a relationship in order to make it wholly knowable to someone else, here is a meta sleight of hand from Armfield. She intends to end this horror movie the way you know it will by the time you’ve hit this Leah section.
Horror movie references are woven throughout. Going to the movies together was a big part of Miri and Leah’s relationship. There are references to The Fly, to Jaws, to Shivers. Again, this is a monster novel, and these monster texts it engages with highlight that. But there is no point of Leah turning on Miri. Our Wives Under The Sea effectively subverts the trope of queerness as monstrous. Miri is far from perfect in her caretaking of Leah, but there is so much care here between them. The monster is always a doomed figure in these stories, but the romance between Leah and Miri isn’t doomed. It’s the sole light source in these dark waters.
It is not always obvious what Leah is becoming beyond quite clearly becoming something that belongs to the sea, but that ambivalence works well. Again, this is a book so obsessed with unknowable things. Leah and Miri are both kept in the dark. The shadow company Leah works for functions as a looming Big Bad, the monster-makers, but Armfield doesn’t get too lost in the weeds of conspiracy here. It’s simply enough to know that the people Leah worked for are bad without needing to know the real why of her fate. As far as monster transformations go, this is a very slow-burn one. Leah is clearly becoming something, steadily, her grip on life with Miri liquifying. Or else she has already become it and is only holding onto old parts of herself for as long as possible in order to hold onto Miri.
Here is a simultaneously bleak and beautiful elegiac novel. It wraps its tentacles around you and squeezes harder and harder until you feel as if you might burst, like grief itself. On my second read, I sobbed at the ending though I knew it was coming and thought of all the people and things I miss.
Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield is out today.