Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
Published by Picador, 2022
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Part love story, part sci-fi chiller, this follows Miri, whose wife Leah has just returned from a botched deep-sea mission that left her stranded in a claustrophobic underwater vessel for months. Though initially relieved to have her back, it soon becomes clear that something about Leah has been changed by her experiences, her behaviour and appearance becoming increasingly strange.
I love the setup for this novel, which has all the ingredients to be my ideal read: queer, speculative, and creepy. It’s worth noting, therefore, that I had very high expectations heading in. For me, the book is definitely at its strongest when it flirts with the realms of body horror, but there was always a sense that the author was holding back in this respect, and I found myself waiting for a descent into full-blown horror that sadly never came.
For the most part, the book reads as an allegory for loving someone who has been changed due to illness – with obvious parallels being drawn with Miri’s mother, who died from an unspecified illness that seems to be dementia, leaving Miri with a lot of internalised health anxiety. Armfield asks poignant questions about what it means to love someone who is ill: the pain of watching them gradually slip away; the denial and frustration that can lead you to decline help and isolate yourself from others; the bittersweet power of past memories; and the pain of letting go.
I appreciate the way the narrative mirrors the protagonists’ experiences of feeling trapped, and being confronted by the unknown: Leah, quite literally trapped at the bottom of the ocean, and Miri, weighed down by the emotional strain of her wife’s eventual return. There are definitely times when the story lags somewhat, trudging slowly around the same ideas multiple times, but this soon feels deliberate, emphasizing the monotony felt by many of those living with – or caring for someone with – a chronic, degenerative illness.
Not quite the knockout favourite I hoped it would be, this was still a compelling read that explores the unique and shattering pain of grieving for someone who is technically not quite gone, as Miri learns to accept her grief, and push beyond her own fears to do right by those she loves.