Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

This assured debut novel examines depths of the ocean and soul, evolving the skin-prickling body horror of Armfield’s short stories into something stranger, murkier and deeper

Depth structures so much of our thoughts and everyday language. We look for insight by going in depth, hunting for a deeper understanding, going below the surface or getting to the bottom of something. A superficial person is shallow. One can sink low in failure – until reaching rock bottom. Trauma is buried or submerged. Something can be beneath one’s dignity or leave one out of their depth. Go too far and you could even be said to have gone off the deep end or be in over your head. Or maybe it’s not that deep?

Yet outside of literary criticism, depth is seldom given the kind of extended, psychological and thematic focus found in Julia Armfield’s assured debut novel, Our Wives Under the Sea – which treats depth as a site of horror, scientific enquiry, and semi-Freudian self-discovery. Following an ill-fated submarine expedition into deep, uncharted waters, the novel is structured according to zones of ocean depth, in five sections: Sunlight Zone, Twilight Zone, Midnight Zone, Abyssal Zone, and Hadal Zone. Each is deeper than the one before, posing greater and greater mysteries to scientists – culminating in the virtually unknown terrain of the Hadal Zone, named after the ancient underworld, Hades. While depth is often figuratively associated with clarity, truth, and getting the root of something, Armfield’s deep-sea setting reveals an alternative way of seeing (and not seeing) things: the deeper you go, the darker things get. Things get lost in the gloom – of the deep ocean, and the unconscious mind.

Our Wives Under the Sea charts the effects of catastrophe, the pain of not knowing, and the cost of discovery, within the marriage of Leah – a deep sea explorer and scientist – and her wife, Miri. On the fateful mission at the heart of the novel, a submarine malfunction leaves Leah and her two crewmates stranded at the bottom of the ocean, in near darkness for months on end. Without digital clocks, they lose all sense of time. Meanwhile, Miri waits on the surface in anguished uncertainty, hearing little to no news about Leah’s situation. She eventually assumes Leah has died and tries to come to terms with it. Yet also told in parallel are the facts of Leah’s remarkable return, Miri’s delight at their reunion turning to complicated confusion when Leah barely communicates, spends hour after hour sat in salty bath water, and appears to transform into some sort of sea creature – who, at the novel’s conclusion, Miri dutifully transports to the shoreline to release out into the ocean.

Armfield keeps many of the novel’s details if not opaque, but translucent. By the end of the novel, I was left with the distinct impression that the evasive, elusive ‘Centre for Marine Enquiry’, who Leah works for, may have deliberately sabotaged their vessel. Perhaps the mission was less about studying the ocean than about studying its effects on stranded people. Leah’s bodily changes, for the majority of the novel, remain just within the realms of medical possibility, yet squaring these questions literally is, of course, far less interesting than the haunting effects of our ignorance. Armfield deftly balances a bubbling sense of bureaucratic betrayal with the mystical and mythic; the entire novel is like us peering through the gloom, as Leah desperately does at the end of the novel. At the expense of their potential survival, she insists on them remaining submerged, despite the miraculous return of the submarine’s power. Peering through the portholes, she tries to learn the deepest secrets of the ocean.

Within its five sections, Our Wives Under the Sea is constructed from short chapters which nimbly alternate between the perspectives of Miri and Leah. However, the novel actually tells three stories of grief in parallel, rather than two: Miri thinking Leah has perished, Leah coming to terms with near-certain, imminent death, and Miri’s second bout of mourning for the person Leah once was – when she comes back profoundly changed. Miri’s chapters flit from present to past tense, contrasting the current baffling immediacy of Leah’s return with the confusion and Kafkaesque bureaucracy of her absence, as she struggles to extract updates from the Centre.

The novel’s plot is relatively spare, largely free from incident bar the premise I have already outlined, and while this would be to the detriment of many novels, Armfield’s choice to write with a downward motion, into depths literal and metaphorical, rather than in the usual linear forward movement seems inspired. Armfield’s eddying, swirling patterns and juxtapositions draw us into the characters she studies and inhabits. Excessive meandering is avoided by Armfield masterfully controlling the flow of information to the reader, ensuring there is always just enough narrative momentum. This magic trick is helped by the novel’s cross-cutting structure, which keeping a story about stasis in constant motion.

Our Wives Under the Sea is a profoundly moving dual character study, and the character of Miri especially is rendered with a brittle realism that makes her experience all the more heart-breaking. Armfield’s writing here evinces the same knack for scalpel-like sentences that made her short story collection, Salt Slow, crawl inside one’s head. Miri’s narration deploys searing emotional insight in a way that seems effortless and casual, yet also the hard-work lessons of heartache. Armfield toys with language in an intensely satisfying manner, viewing clichés askance and breathing fresh, vital life into them. The ‘error in my reasoning was to assume that alone was somewhere you could go, rather than somewhere you had to be left’, Miri narrates, at the start of the novel. Later, we read that ‘loving is something we all do alone’ – a lonely revelation surely learned by Miri after having been left.

Leah’s chapters are retrospectively revealed to be entries in log, written to pass the time in the stranded submarine – an insight into a mind under pressure and about to undergo a substantial change. As such, they contain fear and frankness. Miri, by contrast, is more loquacious – ambiguously addressing us and almost seeming to perform for us. Armfield peppers Miri’s chapters with delightful similes. At one point, Miri reflects that ‘I have allowed blame to settle over me like a weather system’, while later a bad kiss is hilariously figured ‘as though he were using me to floss with’. (Armfield’s narrative voice remains preoccupied with teeth throughout; Leah’s gums bleed, the ocean is repeatedly described as having teeth, and at one point, a house is ‘gutted […] of its useful attributes’, and Miri describes how she ‘stole its furniture, pulled its teeth’. In her story ‘Smack’ too, the ‘waves [are] drawing back like lips revealing teeth’.) At times, Armfield’s gifts of comic observation are used in tandem with devastating emotional revelation. The exhaustion of caring for Leah, compounded by not knowing whether she is helping or not, is compared to ‘the way that anyone who sneezes more than four times abruptly loses the sympathy of an audience’. The novel’s jokes ache with human life and limitations.

Armfield’s narrators regularly defamiliarize everyday objects, and the novel has a recurring gesture of re-evaluation. The horror begins uncanny, found in minor recalibrations that signal seismic changes on the horizon. We share Miri’s horrified unease when Leah starts to mix salt into her drinking water. Yet over time, Miri comes to prepare salt water for Leah to drink, in an uncertain act of love. The novel builds towards a stunning metamorphosis – another recurring concern for Armfield in Salt Slow. Most akin to this is the opening story ‘Mantis’, whose title foreshadows a girl’s transformation into an insect-creature which is named only in the title. In that story, a teenage girl tells us conversationally about her ‘problem skin’, which has a hereditary mixture of acne, psoriasis, eczema and vitiligo – but also not quite any of them. Over the course of twenty pages, her skin slowly flakes off more and more, until she transforms into something with wings and malevolent intentions. Somewhat similar is the more minor transformation of protagonist Nicola in ‘Smack’, who finds that her finger has ‘mottled up around her wedding ring’, so she cannot get it off – no matter how hard she tries.

Leah, after days submerged in saltwater, undergoes a strange metamorphosis, which is described only indirectly, in shards of bodily detail. We learn she is ‘translucent, then eventually clear’. It is as if she ‘melts’; ‘the body I [Miri] am holding is becoming less a body’. There is no shift from innocence to violence though, only the slow fade of devoted, marital love into something unintelligible and beyond human understanding.

In ‘Mantis’, it seems as if we are invited to view the transformation as a metaphor for the changes, pressures and terrors of adolescence – a pungent metaphor, and fertile ground for horror. The irremovable ring in ‘Smack’ points to Nicola’s inability to look after herself when alone, as her husband tries to divorce her. By contrast, Our Wives Under the Sea seems to resist reduction to a singular primary theme, instead inviting more exploratory metaphorical interpretation – hunting out deeper meanings that elude simple detection. The novel speaks to grief quite directly, as well as the difficulties of the responsibilities of caring that love quietly confers. Miri’s perspective arguably represents someone coming to terms with an inexorable change in a partner. Early in the novel, Miri and Leah’s friend Sam claims that love is not actually ‘complicated’ at all; ‘if you’re with the wrong person it’s hard.’ Yet Our Wives Under the Sea examines a terrifying question: what if the right person then changes? The novel reads as a sublime metaphorical journey into acceptance of someone growing out of a relationship. Here, through a profound, inexplicable metamorphic shift, Leah and Miri’s continued relationship becomes untenable. Their needs are too different. In this case, it is literally that Leah now needs to be submerged in salt water. Yet any attempt to construct too direct an allegory seems doomed to fail, feeling quaint compared to the rich, unresolvable strangeness of Armfield’s writing.

The novel’s imagery is redolent of sea monsters, swashbuckling myth combined with the real deep-sea surprises of David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet and other similar documentaries. Yet the novel is also suffused with a latent spirituality, particularly fascinated by Catholicism. According to Leah, Miri is a ‘Catholic hobbyist’, while faith burns at the ‘white hot core’ of Jelka, the ‘brisk and rational and often cold-blooded’ fellow sub-aquatic research scientist. We learn that she likes the sea not for any pantheistic wonder at the omnipresence of God, but due to its absence of and distance from churches. Despite Jelka’s adolescent hopes, her gender still forbids her from training to become a priest. Every now and again, Armfield circles back to religion, which contributes further to the recurring gesture of peering into the unknown and hints at another metaphorical reading of the novel’s ending. Perhaps we are to see Leah’s release into the ocean as a symbolic escape from earthly pain (such as during a terminal illness), where death acts as an ambiguous liberation – potentially into another life, in a new form.

These concerns could be considered predictably uncertain; the novel is concerned with known unknowns. Thus, Our Wives Under the Sea is about the horror of the unexplained and inexplicable, yet, for Armfield, horror is also a highly predictable genre. In an intelligent touch towards the end, Leah recalls how Miri describes the obviousness of horror films; ‘Every horror movie ends the way you know it will.’ This implicitly identifies the genre they are in, Leah realising that she knows what will happen, more or less. There is no resolution within the bounds of medical science; horror is so often a genre of predictable descent. Much like tragedy though, of which horror could be considered a debatable sub-genre, inevitability does not blunt its emotive, cathartic force. Genre is almost like a scab to be picked at over and over again – and many of Armfield’s characters cannot resist picking at them.

The ongoing popularity of horror could be attributed, psychologically, to its inbuilt rehearsal of traumas – the reopening of old wounds. In trauma theory, such a decision to revisit early trauma is called repetition compulsion. Part of this is to reckon with previous events, yet there is likely a preparatory function too, so that next time we might be ready. Horror films confront us with the apocalyptic and terrifyingly inescapable perhaps in order to salve our knowledge of our inevitable demise and the uncontrollable forces which govern our lives. Horror is, of course, a deeply psychological genre – perhaps in part due to its predictability. After all, psychoanalysis claims to unearth things that you already knew – deep down. (At one point in the novel, a couples therapist operates a ‘deep listening’ style, arguing that ‘childhood experience could often be a root of dysfunction in adult relationships’.)

The genre is also conceived of here as an engine of metamorphosis: ‘if you’re watching a movie about werewolves, you can be almost certain your hero will become one by the end. If you’re watching a movie about vampires, same thing. Ghosts too’. As Leah is released into the sea, Miri sees it as an ‘alchemist […], changing something into something else’. I was struck by the similarly to a tangential aside from David Graeber (in his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs), where he notes that ‘the most frightening monsters […] do not simply threaten to rend or torture or kill you but to turn you into a monster yourself’. Body horror often has a subtler spiritual component – the crushing of the human soul and spirit into something baser, animalistic, or without imagination. Armfield’s stunning subversion though comes in Miri’s tender acceptance of Leah’s change. If the sea is an alchemist, and the process of change like alchemy, then it could even be an improvement or transcendence. Though Miri grieves for the Leah she previously knew, and the future together they will not have, the lonely love that Miri is left with demands that she does what is best for Leah. The sadness is matched with hope and determination; ‘I know what I am doing now’, Miri realises, as she carries Leah to the water’s edge.

The novel returns to Leah’s perspective for its final paragraph, as she and Matteo are ‘rocket[ing] upwards’ towards the surface of the sea. Armfield implies that this rapid ascent may have caused decompression sickness – also known as the bends – though, of course, Leah’s symptoms are far more varied and unknowable than such a simple diagnosis. As the submarine rises, with the previously irreligious Matteo clinging to Jelka’s rosary, Leah’s ‘sunken thoughts reced[e]’. Instead, she thinks of ‘Miri Miri Miri’. The strongest feelings are not necessarily the deepest, but the ones that are clear and at the surface. So, the novel concludes with the couple apart, yet separately declaring a total, all-consuming love.

Despite the descent into horror in genre, structure and imagery, Our Wives Under the Sea is also a deeply moving love story. Pondering the inevitability of endings, death and ‘the number of times you will defrost the fridge’, Miri rejects the mathematical certainty of the finite span of life and love – instead noting that we ‘simply imagine that whatever time we have is limitless’. Thus, the novel’s end freezes this moment of absolute marital love as Leah ‘wait[s] for the ocean to end’. Love is a lonely emotion, experienced together and apart – its value in the moment unaffected by life’s change and ending, burning bright in the moments that count.

Our Wives Under the Sea

Written by Julia Armfield, Cover Design by Ami Smithson, Image by Nick Fancher
Published by Picador

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