A novel of unsettling memories of undersea events and wistfully sad lesbians.
The sea is, in my opinion, a deeply unsettling place. Especially the deep bits. The really really deep bits, where no light penetrates, and all the creatures look like they've escaped from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. Thinking about that vast depth of unknown blue-black gives me the shivers, and the thought of swimming above the whole "far, far beneath in the abyssal sea" situation... eururugh.
Julia Armfield has taken this deep sense of unease and asked "what if we turned the creepy dial up a bit more? And then a bit more than that?". Against all my better judgment and my desire to sleep comfortably ever again, I have to admit, it was extremely compelling. Just don't ever ask me to get on a submarine.
The story follows Miri and her wife Leah, who has finally returned from a deep-sea mission extended long beyond its planned term, and which clearly ended in disaster of some kind, though the participants won't discuss it. At first, Miri is just glad to have Leah home, hoping to get back to the close and loving relationship they had before. But as the story progresses, we and she begin to suspect that the disaster, whatever it was, wasn't solely contained to the bottom of the sea. Not only withdrawn and quiet, unwilling to eat and with a fondness for drinking salt water, Leah begins to seem... wrong and getting wronger. And all the while, that strangeness serves to reinforce for Miri that the wife she got back isn't the person she fell in love with anymore.
We see the mystery of it unfolding through Miri's eyes, while at the same time learning from Leah's perspective the events that led up to the disaster and the present day, and through both of them the relationship they had before, and what they're missing now.
For all that this is a novel with a strong horror element - which only increases as the story goes on - the primary driver and for me compelling part of reading it is the interpersonal relationship. We get a very close view on Leah and Miri, and who they are to each other, reinforced by the flashbacks and memories throughout the story of how their relationship came to be. There is a terrible, wistful sadness to Miri's perspective, an increasing yearning for the past and how things were, that serves only to reinforce the mundane horror of a wife who simply isn't herself anymore, let alone the more unnatural, unknowable horror that we begin to see as events progress. But it's not a totally rose-tinted view - their relationship wasn't perfect, even in Miri's memory - and because we see snippets of fights and tensions as well as the love and the closeness, it feels all the more real and tangible, and all the greater loss. We also get little tidbits of their lives as they intertwined with others, and Miri is capable of some quite casual brutality in how she judges her friends and Leah's, all kept internal, shared only with the reader, while she maintains a polite façade of everything being... okay.
Everything is really not ok.
The book is divided into sections named after the various depths of the oceans, beginning with the shallowest and heading down to the very depths of the hadalpelagic horror-show (definitely a technical term) zone. Each section steps up the level of unease, the strangeness of what seems to be happening to Leah, reinforcing the feeling of the ocean being a horrifying place, but also a more and more unknown one the deeper we go.
Because fundamentally, a lot of what this book is about is the unknown and the unknowable and the intangible. It's not a story with clear answers and a table at the back to explain things to you. Which is why it being such a relationship-focussed story works so well - much like the growing mystery of Leah and her experiences underwater, relationships are fundamentally things that defy logic and easy clarification, especially to those outside. We are being allowed this window into Leah and Miri's, and we can see the movements under the surface, the evidence of things gone by, but we can never know it in truth. We can, instead, see only the effects it has, the outcomes and the consequences, and how it affects those involved. Intertwining that so closely with the horror elements, making them so personal and intimate, really drives them under your skin as you read, and it is impossible not to keep thinking about some aspects of the story, even after you've put the book down.
The other thing that lingers - which was true just as much for Armfield's previous book, Salt Slow, as it is for Our Wives Under the Sea - is the prose. It is to be savoured, devoured carefully, bite by delicious bite. It is hard to point out any specific thing she does particularly well, but as someone who tends to devour books at pace, the fact that I feel the need to stop and deliberate and fully engage when I read her words really catches my attention, and makes me want to keep coming back for more.
Her prose is however what makes me slightly dubious about the novel's place in SFFH. Instinctively, while reading it, the tone of the prose alongside the deep, internal focus on characters makes me take this as a piece of literary rather than genre fiction, despite the obviously speculative horror angle. It doesn't feel like an SFFH book, and that too, for me at least, is part of its charm. It's doing something entirely SFFH, but not in the way I'd ever expect to see it, and that lends an already quite interesting premise that extra layer of something. Moving speculative elements into the litfic genre, in my experience, either ends in doom (when the author doesn't have enough experience of the genre they're playing with to contextualise them within what already exists) or glory, when, like this, the fusion of the two creates something better than the sum of its parts.
That being said, I'm not sure how well this would work for an inveterate horror reader (of which I am not one, being, as I am, a complete and utter wuss). Certainly, if you go in wanting the horror to be the main event, you will be disappointed. Obviously it's there, and it's a critical part of the story, and I felt very horrified by the end, but it's not the sole focus, and there are definitely points in the narrative where the actual horror parts take a backseat to the more mundane horror of the breakdown of Leah and Miri's relationship. And the two of them are paced very well - it never feels rushed or unnaturally spun out for the sake of keeping us in suspense. There's a creaking inevitability to both parts of the story, and so when things do finally come together at the end, it definitely feels satisfying, but a big chunk of that is the interplay between the horror and the relationship, rather than just the maritime nastiness itself.
But if you're happy for your horror to play second fiddle to a really compelling bit of character work? It's an absolute winner. Come for the sad lesbians, stay for the stunning prose, eerie atmosphere and horrible events involving submarines.
Baseline Assessment: 8/10
Bonuses: +1 genuinely managing to play out the suspense for the whole novel
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10
Reference: Julia Armfield, Our Wives Under the Sea [Pan Macmillan, 2022]
POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea