Beyond this point, there is a final layer… This layer is known as the Hadalpelagic, or Hadal Zone, a name which speaks for itself. Lying between roughly nineteen and thirty-six thousand feet, much of this layer of the water is unexplored, which is not to say uninhabited.
The deep sea is… deep. (If you want to get a sense of just how deep, I can’t recommend this enough, but brace yourself – it’s scary). Miri’s biologist wife Leah has returned home after a deep-sea mission that was supposed to last for three weeks, but took three months. Leah won’t or can’t explain the length of her absence, and when Miri repeatedly calls her employer, the Centre, she remains in an endless loop of recorded messages. Leah’s account of the mission alternates with Miri’s longer sections, as she describes how their submarine began to sink, as planned – and then just kept sinking. With the lights and power off, and the comms broken, they had no way of knowing just how deep they’d fallen – and no way of getting back up.
When I first read about Our Wives Under The Sea, Julia Armfield’s first novel, it sounded like it ticked a lot of my boxes. Deep-sea exploration, lesbians, speculative fiction, horror… plus that haunting cover. However, I couldn’t have anticipated just how much I would love this book. I am officially obsessed. Much as I love this kind of crossover between literary fiction and speculative fiction/horror, I don’t think we should underestimate just how difficult it is to pull off. While I think these two kinds of writing can work so well together (my own novel-in-progress, The Forest That Eats Bone, also occupies this space), some of their demands pull against each other. The kind of concrete explanations for mysterious phenomena that you might get in science fiction, for example, don’t always work well alongside the usual rhythms of literary prose; meanwhile, literary fiction’s penchant for strange metaphor can be confusing in a story where bizarre things are actually happening. Armfield balances this perfectly. We learn just enough about the Centre to root Leah’s mission in the real world, while also positioning it in the realms of the uncanny (in comparison, Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed Annihilation drifted too far into unreality for me). Her use of unsettling scientific facts about the deep sea allows what is possible and what is impossible to bleed beautifully into each other.
However, the other thing that anchors this story is the relationship between Miri and Leah. Armfield avoids the temptation of romantic vagueness that seems to catch so many writers of speculative literary fiction and makes them both wonderfully-observed, concretely realistic people. I loved Miri’s stray observations about the Leah she knew before her wife embarked on the mission: ‘The thing about Leah was that nine times out of ten she couldn’t bring herself to be unkind about anyone, but then three times a year would say something so blisteringly cruel about someone we knew that she’d clap both hands to her mouth and turn in a circle as if warding off evil’. Their world, too, is rendered in such fine detail, from the sound of the neighbour’s television that constantly blares into their flat to the way the weather was on their first date: ‘The night was wet, air close and flannel-damp’.
Our Wives Under The Sea is not one of those frustrating literary novels that is simply a metaphor for something else, but it uses the potential of its plot to talk about grief in expertly moving ways. Armfield has written about her interest in ‘women and their bodies’ and this certainly comes through in Our Wives Under The Sea; alongside the weird metamorphosis of Leah’s body after she emerges from the ocean, Miri recollects caring for her mother in the final stages of dementia, and the way she lost control of her own movements after a life of adopting only very rigid facial expressions. The ending of the novel – and this never happens – made me cry.
Armfield’s prose is absolutely stunning, but this is not a novel that is all about the writing. (I wouldn’t love it so much if it was). It’s a gorgeous, heartbreaking book about the relationship between two women and what becomes of that relationship, and it gets a full five stars from me, which is another thing that almost never happens. But I guess stranger things have happened at sea.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rd March. BUY IT NOW.
Edit: In my excitement to post this review I forgot to mention that Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim is a wonderful non-fiction companion to Our Wives Under The Sea, if rather less creepy.