Our Wives Under the Sea – Julia Armfield

“Ghosts don’t speak,” she said . . . “but something is speaking to me.”

I, Hannah, read Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea. I honestly can’t remember why I picked it on Netgalley. I am sure a part of it had to do with the cover, but another part was it sounded just weird enough for me to love. And I was right. This book is a short, weird novel that I don’t want to delve too deep into and ruin it for the people who pick it up. I want people to read it and experience it, so I will try and be as vague as I possibly can. I will only say it is a mysterious, short novel that has some small horror undertones and a mystery on what happened to a woman lost deep in the ocean and what is happening to her once she returns. I will add a few quotes along the way, and layer them in to see some of the beauty of the prose.

First off, this premise is so perfect. We have a woman whose wife has returned after being lost in a submarine mission for months. She thought she was dead and now she is back, but is she. There is a sense of loss, a sense of in between that layers this entire novel. A lot of the novel is a juxtaposition between Miri and her wife Leah at two different pressure points, one while she is beneath the surface and one back on dry land. It is interesting and really gets into the feeling of loss and complex emotion when one partner changes in a way you feel guilty for not understanding.

I loved her hard and at a distance, which made it easier to do, experienced brief but powerful compulsions to hug her and almost never did.

The best part of these novels come in the prose, moments where we see the two women discuss land and sea, darkness and space. You can feel that they are two separate people, who miss each other very much where they are and who they have become. Miri is ever present on land, wanting to see the world around her:

People grow odd when there’s too much sky — they lose the sense of land around them, think themselves into floating away.

Miri isn’t grounded. She is the most complicated and least complex character all at once. She suffered loss but has a hard time describing it. She doesn’t really know where she is or who she is with from moment to moment. She is the one trying to figure things out but also ignoring it when she can. For me, sometimes her character didn’t hit as hard, but in a lot of other moments she was deep and her struggle felt real. She is brought up against Leah, a woman who has a very straightforward backstory on why she loves the ocean, why she can’t seem to stay on land:

In the sea there’s no such thing as a natural horizon, no place for the line of the sky to signify an end. When you sink — which we did, long hours of sinking — you can’t see the bottom and you can’t see the top and the ocean around you extends on both sides with no obvious limit except the border around your window. Earth and its certain curvature become fare less clear underwater.

Overall, Leah is the biggest mystery of the novel, what happened to her and what is going on. We get to see her the most before all the issues. We get to see her dread and feelings as things come down around her. We get to see interactions with her ship mates, where in the future she and Miri will be isolated and alone. We get to see her think of happy memories with Miri, to reflect on her, all along descending into her own issues and madness along with her crew. She is trying to keep the peace, trying to keep them safe as they wait to see what is happening around them.

She is here at her most human, whereas the after effects of the dive are all in shades of mystery and strange happenings. Both of them are trying to make what is happening to Leah make the most sense, but she is more doing it for Miri. She wants her wife to be happy.

This is a very complex novel undertaken in a very short amount of space. I think in some ways Armfield is incredibly adept at taking this on and I was fascinated to see all the moving parts coming together. I couldn’t wait to see if there was more elements to this book than I was expecting, and was pleasantly surprised with every move she made. That said, some other things fell a little flat. I felt like Miri’s discussion about her mother was so ancillary to the rest of the story it almost didn’t make sense why it was in there at all, the dual grief of losing a complicated mother with the sense of losing Leah was confused and didn’t really feel as layered as she wanted it to. Further, Miri as a character sometimes felt a little at a loss. She seemed a bit bland in some sense and didn’t feel as much as a fully realized person when she is often the main focus of the novel. I was also shocked at a portion of the novel where Miri stumbles over another character’s name in what felt like a little racially insensitive, but didn’t feel like it was a part of her character that we were supposed to notice. Outside these small nits, honestly pick it up if you want a book shrouded in mystery of what is happening to a woman with a few light horror elements thrown in.

And with that, a beautiful ending quote to leave you with:

If you’ve got breath enough to scream, you’re not drowning.

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