Last year, Surrey New Writer’s Festival had the absolute pleasure of listening to Julia Armfield talk about her sensational debut short story collection, salt slow, during our Magical Realism panel. Julia has now published her debut novel, Our Wives Under the Sea. As you can imagine, I was itching to get hold of a copy and dive into her beautifully lyrical writing once again. Where does Our Wives stand in comparison to salt slow? Well, somehow, it’s even better than its predecessor! Don’t worry: there are no spoilers!
Our Wives Under the Sea is what can only be described as a deeply romantic, chillingly unsettling horror story. The novel centres married couple Miri and Leah, whose lives are completely altered when Leah comes back from a deep-sea dive different. All the years Miri and Leah have spent together seem to unravel in front of Miri’s eyes as she must come to terms with the fact that the Leah she knew, the Leah she fell passionately in love with, may be gone.
Armfield’s magnetic writing style is perfectly suited to a novel where every sentence has the power to reveal something new about Miri and Leah’s relationship, the development of Leah’s changes or the process of dealing with loss. A riveting page turner, Our Wives benefits from Armfield’s natural rhythm and fluidity and forces you to keep reading even when the hairs on the back of your neck are standing upright. You are utterly compelled to find out what happened to Leah under the water and to discover what will happen to her above sea level.
One of the most compelling aspects of the novel is Armfield’s use of dual-perspective narration. The five sections of the novel are creatively named after the depth levels of the ocean and, within each of these sections, the chapters alternate between Miri and Leah’s perspectives, each chapter title reflecting which perspective we are reading. This simultaneously gives us access to Miri’s turmoil in dealing with the prospect that her Leah is no longer with her and Leah’s strife in experiencing a disturbing and troubling deep-sea dive that leaves more questions than it answers. Consequently, the novel feel like a thriller at times, as you thirst to know more about Leah’s situation through her own narrative of her experience and the interpretation of her experience through the eyes of the person who loves her most.
An area that could have been disastrous if not handled as fluidly as Armfield manages to do in the novel is the explanation of scientific jargon. Armfield herself notes in the acknowledgements that she is not a marine biologist and cites the sources she used to gain her expertise. It never feels like you are being overwhelmed by the science; instead each piece you learn about the ocean and its creatures feels necessary and adds to either the plot or Miri and Leah’s character development. If anyone is struggling to write a book that requires a plethora of facts and wants to know how to do it right, they should look to Armfield for inspiration.
Another aspect that Armfield aces is exploring the psychological impact of loss, grief and loneliness. Throughout the novel, Miri and Leah’s relationship is well-established and contextualised through their own memories and through the relationships that surround them. A particular stand-out is Miri’s struggle to reconcile her emotional response to her mother’s illness and death, especially considering that Leah was never able to meet Miri’s mother before her passing. Additionally, Leah’s failed deep-sea dive involves striking periods of darkness, loneliness and introspection: all of which Armfield approaches with sensitivity and care.
All of these strengths in Armfield’s writing amalgamate in the most fitting ending possible. Without revealing anything about the progression of the plot, the ending will leave you simultaneously in tears, with a chill down the back of your spine and desperate to hug someone dear to you. Armfield has struck the balance between giving and withholding information perfectly, with many questions remaining unanswered whilst your main queries are resolved; you’ll want to turn the last page and find more words to keep reading, but that’s just a sign of how riveting a read Our Wives truly is.
Our Wives Under the Sea is an astounding debut for Julia Armfield. The story has remained in the forefront of my mind days after having finished. I cannot wait for more people to meet and fall in love with Miri and Leah, a couple whose devotion to each other will make you ache for something just as real.
Have you read Our Wives Under the Sea yet? If so, what did you think? Or are you waiting for your copy to arrive? Let us know in the comments!
About the Author:
Hi, I’m Beth (she/her) and I am a PhD student at the University of Surrey and your co-Assistant Festival Director for SNWF 2022! I research and write historical/ historiographic fiction and I am particularly interested in intersectional feminist narratives. My favourite book is Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and my favourite play is The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson. I also love a creepy horror tale or two and particularly enjoy Julia Armfield’s short stories in this genre! My favourite book of 2021 is The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed.