A woman returns from the deep sea, irrevocably changed.
In a small, tidy flat located in an unnamed British city that is “veined with water like the lines on the back of a hand,” housewife Miri tries desperately to reconnect with her wife Leah, who has returned from a disastrous deep-sea mission irrevocably changed. As Miri struggles to care for a woman who no longer resembles her wife, and Leah herself slips further and further from her grasp, the life that they have built with each other begins to fall apart.
Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea is an exploration of love, grief, and memory, woven through with a chilling current of deep-sea horror. As the story progresses, the book itself descends through marked sections corresponding to the varying depths of the ocean — from the Sunlight and Twilight Zones near the surface, all the way down to the ominous Hadal Zone. Just like Leah’s ill-fated submersible voyage, we are drawn downwards through the ocean, with Armfield’s gentle but evocative prose acting as a tantalising weight that drags us deeper into the story, and deeper into the lives of the two women. Leah and Miri are clearly made for each other and it’s their love, so very genuine, that makes the tragedy at the core of the novel all the more heart-wrenching.
Reading Our Wives Under the Sea is an intimate, almost unreal experience, like stumbling into someone else’s dreams. Passages and images come vividly to life through Armfield’s understated, poetic writing style, but then slip away as quickly as they arrived. Throughout the book, the perspective shifts between Miri’s ‘after’ and Leah’s ‘before’, swinging between the familiar spaces of domesticity – bills, work, washing up, feuding with the neighbours – and the cramped confines of an immobilised and stranded submersible craft. The rhythm of the novel is remarkably regular, lulling you into a sense of familiarity that makes its brief sparks of weirdness all the more jarring – here’s what this character did today; this is where they went, what they ate; here’s how they felt when their wife ran all the taps in the house for hours and locked herself in the bathroom.
Horror has a place in this novel, but it’s the kind of horror that breaks your heart rather than makes you shiver. At its core, this is a story about bodies, and muscle memory, and the slimy stuff inside us that holds us together. More specifically, it’s a story about what happens when all those things start to break down and drain away, and our loved ones are left helpless, holding the pieces.
Familiar yet otherworldly, Our Wives Under the Sea ties the pain of grief, the terror of the deep sea, and the familiar rhythms of domesticity to broader themes of climate crisis, queer life, and the encroachment of human activity on the natural world. Leah and Miri’s story is tragic, moving, and wholly genuine in its depiction of a relationship caught up and shattered by powers far beyond their understanding or their control. Wishing for a happy ending, as you read this book, feels more and more like trying to hold back the tide as it rises unstoppably to swallow – or even reclaim – the land.