Review: Our Wives Under the Sea - Julia Armfield
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
Genre: Literary Fiction, Magical Realism, Horror
Published: Picador, March 2022
My Rating: 5/5 stars
"The deep sea is a haunted house: a place in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness. Unstill, is the word Leah uses (...) The ocean is unstill, she says, futher down than you think. All the way down to the bottom, things move." Ever since her 2019 short-story collection Salt Slow captured my heart and imagination, I’ve been eagerly anticipating whatever Julia Armfield would bring us next. When I learned that her next release would be her debut literary horror novel, featuring themes of the deep ocean, grief, loss, and an F-F-relationship, it quickly moved to the top of my most-anticipated-list. With such high expectations, I was setting myself up for disappointment, right? Wrong! Our Wives Under the Sea is a phenomenal gem that lived up to all its promises. When marine-biologist Leah embarked on her latest deep-sea research mission, neither she nor her wife Miri could have anticipated the way their lives are about to change for good. When a technical malfunction leaves the submarine stranded on the ocean floor in complete radio silence, Miri knows she has lost her beloved wife for good. Her euphoria over an unlikely rescue mission that returns the crew to the shallows safely, soon turns to dread, as she realises that the woman who resurfaced isn’t the Leah she knew before. Something inside her has changed and whatever she encountered in those abyssal depths has nestled itself deep inside her, and accompanied her in her return to the surface. Through Miri’s eyes, intercut with journal-entries from Leah’s time below, we follow the unravelling of their relationship in the aftermath of an event that cut a rift through both of their lives. Our Wives Under the Sea is quite frankly achingly close to being my perfect book. Not only does it combine all of my favourite elements (a metaphor of deep-sea biology, hauntings, themes of grief, loss, parental illness, an F-F-relationship that’s past the first-love stage, and so much more), it does so subtly, cohesively and sticks its landing. Besides the signature breath-taking prose and striking talent for making the familiar feel deeply alien and unsettling that Armfield has shown in her previous work, what sets this book apart to me it its sense of depth and layering. Mirroring the descent through the oceanic layers that loosely structure the novel, I found myself diving deeper into this story with every page. In true fabulist-fashion, much is left unspoken, and its up to the reader how far they want to explore. It’s a creepy tale of a woman changed by the sea. It’s also an elegy on loss in all its different forms, about co-dependency, about growing apart after an lifechanging experience you can never completely share, and about traveling into the dark to return changed. Throughout much of it I was reminded of my experience reading (and watching the Netflix-adaptation of) Annihilation. Both conveyed the subliminal dread of the aforementioned themes perfectly, and both got deeply under my skin because of it. In some sense this was the lovechild of Annihilation’s subverbal dread, and Kirsty Logan’s oceanic prose. Coming from me, that’s about the biggest compliment a debut author can get. Many thanks to Picador and the author for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Add this book on Goodreads.