Our Wives Under the Sea, the debut novel by Julia Armfield, may be characterized as an incisive exploration of human relationships and loss, as a narrative both funny and darkly claustrophobic, as a truncated same-sex romance, an engaging mystery, and a startling exercise in gothic horror. Overarching these genres is an articulation of the concept of sinking, both in the sea and in life. This novel is both an expertly crafted work of fiction and a transformation fable, a modernist one without a moral.
Miri is the principal narrator whose wife, Leah, a marine biologist, explores sea life via short research trips in a three-person submersible. On her latest trip, communication and power suddenly die, causing the sub to drop to the deepest ocean floor. Leah and her colleagues find that, inside the submersible, ‘day’ and ‘night’ are slippery notions and, after initial frenzied attempts fail to revive the craft or to communicate with the world, a blanketing silence descends and, surprisingly, resignation and lethargy rather than panic hold sway. In the first few pages, we are told by Miri not only that Leah has returned from this life-threatening catastrophe, but that she has returned “changed”.
This novel is much more than high-concept fiction. While anchored by this simple but suspenseful throughline, Armfield expertly takes us on many time-looping, backstory journeys: the history of Miri and Leah and their relationship, their quarrels, their mothers, and their interactions with friends, all of which effectively illuminate these characters. Each chapter is comprised of alternating sections in which Miri and Leah narrate. The chapters are organized according to the five conventionally recognized levels of sea depth. The sub has come to rest in the Hadal Zone. Named after Hades, it is the deepest zone – the realm of crushing pressure, of sea creatures without eyes or spines – some six to seven miles down, well below the depth to which any light can penetrate.
This novel is a tale of interfaces, air meets the sea, sea and land collide, and the high human coefficient of friction causes two life partners both to cleave and to chafe. It is also a narrative of interiority. We dive deep inside the head of Miri (where she displays her hypochondria and her insightful, often funny, life observations) and inside the head of Leah (where we are treated to her deep knowledge of the sea and its strange creatures). We are also privy to their thinking about each other as they are separated by a vast vertical distance, Miri in her small apartment and Leah encapsulated within the tiny sub as it free-falls, for long hours, toward its infinitely dark resting place.
This is a story imbued with claustrophobia: Miri’s life is shrinking while she is waiting in her apartment, month after month, for word from the Centre for Marine Enquiry, which runs these research expeditions. Eventually searching her computer for a support group, she comes across a site devoted to wives who pretend that their husbands are incommunicado for years while on deep-space expeditions to the outer planets; Miri reaches out to join but is rejected for mis-using the jargon. Meanwhile, Leah, holed up for months within the tight confines of the inoperable sub, is incommunicado, in inner space, under the stacked pressure of miles of ocean, with (almost) nothing but utter void beyond the portholes and hatch window.
Recall the reference above to Our Wives Under the Sea as a mystery. The bulk of Leah’s narrative is devoted to her desperate plight, stuck at the deepest depths where no other submersible can go to offer rescue. How, one wonders, could she end up back at Miri’s apartment as the narrative begins? Armfield handles the novel’s inherent suspense with an expert touch, cleverly placing clues throughout Leah’s narrative.
Recall the reference to this novel being a tale of gothic horror. Miri initially finds Leah returned with a watered-down personality, perhaps understandably traumatized. But then Leah begins bleeding from her nose and through her pores and from her gums (causing Leah repeatedly to lick at the blood in her mouth and Miri to dream that her own teeth are pouring out of her own mouth).
Leah is increasingly spending hours in the bathtub, her skin altering in color and leaving a viscous, gritty scum in the tub that Miri cleans daily. After losing an eye to gravity without much of a reaction, Leah begins asking Miri to pour table salt into the bathwater and eventually into glasses of water from which Leah drinks. “It isn’t that her being back is difficult,” Miri laments silently, “it’s that I’m not convinced she’s really back at all.” Leah’s changes culminate in a vivid climactic set-piece.
Our Wives Under the Sea is a tour de force, especially impressive as it is a debut novel, although her book of stories, 2020’s salt slow, has already won her acclaim. Armfield seamlessly weaves dual narratives and blends multiple genres and looping narrative time into a coherent, beautifully written, and often funny whole. In an era of dampening spirits, this novel is an example of escapism, yes, but escapism with a substance that’s well worth sinking your own teeth into.