Our Wives Under the Sea: Sharp and distinctive debut novel

Book review: Julia Armfield has crafted a tale of two female spouses, one of whom has just returned from a deep-sea mission gone wrong

Our Wives Under The Sea
Author: Julia Armfield
ISBN-13: 9781529017236
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £16.99

I have not stopped dreaming of Our Wives Under the Sea since I finished it. The prize-winning author of the short story collection Salt Slow brings a tale of two female spouses, one of whom has just returned from a deep-sea mission gone wrong. Reprising some of her previous preoccupations (liminal spaces, the proximity between the body and nature, death), Julie Armfield’s debut novel is sharp, atmospheric, dryly funny, sad, distinctive. If it doesn’t appear on numerous prize lists, I’ll eat my hat.

The book is about – what? A failing relationship, maybe. These women – Miri, and Leah – love one another, but since Leah’s return, silence has wormed “like a spine” into their life together. Leah is like a shellshocked war veteran. She rarely eats and is constantly in the bath listening to a sound machine. Miri, at a loss for what to do, spends hours on the phone trying in vain to reach Leah’s former employer.

This might be a book about the sea, about depression, illness, grief. It is laid out in five sections, each corresponding to an ocean layer

Gothic elements are knitted throughout (“The deep sea is a haunted house: a place in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness” goes the tantalising first sentence). Everything that happens on the surface has symbolic, metaphorical meaning beneath. Take Leah’s observation that “things can thrive in unimaginable conditions. All they need is the right sort of skin.” This appears to refer to sea creatures, but the word choice allows for a much wider meaning.

This mode of expression is ubiquitous throughout. The prose is reaching for something, but what? This might be a book about the sea, about depression, illness, grief. It is laid out in five sections, each corresponding to an ocean layer (Sunlight Zone, Twilight Zone, Midnight Zone, Abyssal Zone, Hadal Zone). We follow the trajectory down, down, down.

There are ecological undertones – one thinks of rising tides, though the climate crisis is not explicitly mentioned. Facts abound (“almost all of what you picture when you picture a jellyfish is actually just water”), as though we are reading an unexpectedly moving textbook. We collect information, but there is also the understanding that we can never “know enough to escape from the panic of not knowing”.

Indeed, though the writing is relentlessly exacting, Our Wives Under the Sea tends towards the unknowable, which might also be synonymous with death or the uncanny. There is an almost spiritual endlessness to its quest. Like all good novels, it goes deep and then deeper again.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic