Our Wives Under the Sea
By Julia Armfield
by Natalie Wall
‘The deep sea is a haunted house’ is how Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea opens, and the same can be said for the book itself. The lives of Miri and Leah are as complete and furnished as a house, their minute actions and seemingly mundane memories building a complete structure of their relationship. But, like the sea, it has unknown depths and horrors to which they will sink.
The novel is told in two alternating perspectives and voices: Leah’s, narrating her time in a submarine during a deep-sea research mission that left her and two crewmates trapped at the bottom of the ocean after an unexplained system-failure; and her wife Miri’s, as she waits and presumes Leah dead until her impossible return six months later. As the story develops, the novel moves through the ocean’s vertical zones (sunlight, twilight, midnight, abyssal, hadal), with the growing darkness of these zones and the increasing biological weirdness of their inhabitants reflecting the progression of the narrative, as we see the creeping horror of the ocean brought onto land.
The novel makes use of multiple horror motifs: submarine entrapment in the ocean’s abyss, losses of time, hearing ghostly voices, and horrifically transformed bodies. The horror in the novel centres around Leah, both her time on the submarine and after she returns to land. For anyone averse to the sea or confined spaces, the prospect of a small craft sinking to the bottom of the ocean is horrifying enough. But soon simple cabin fever gives way to something else, as Leah, Jelka and Matteo lose track of the day and night, hear banging at the submarine door, and increasingly engage in erratic and unexplainable behaviour, all heralded by a smell of burning meat upon their descent. The psychological horror of the submarine chapters gives way to the body horror of the land chapters as Miri watches Leah’s body slowly transform into an oceanic horror increasingly unsuited to dry land.
Armfield uses these overlapping timelines and perspectives to explore grief, as the narrative of Miri’s mother’s decline and death from dementia – which happened at the beginning of her relationship with Leah – and the grief Miri feels during Leah’s absence and after she returns are both uncomfortably extended. The novel asks: when it is appropriate to start grieving someone? When is the exact moment of loss? Before Leah returns, Miri is trapped in a sort of limbo – it feels like giving up to assume Leah is dead, to start grieving – but upon her return it feels like rejecting this new Leah, abandoning her in a time of need, to grieve the Leah she has lost. Leah’s changed state mirrors Miri’s mother’s dementia and explores how to start grieving someone who is still alive but so irrevocably changed that it feels like a kind of death. Unsurprisingly, Armfield doesn’t offer any answers to this unanswerable question, but by showing how grief unsticks time, mingling memories with the present and making the future unreachable, grief is rendered remarkably realistically for a fantastical horror novel.
The strengths of the novel will also be the frustrations for some readers. In particular, the way it feels like you’re only just glancing sideways at some of the pivotal events, denied a long, hard look to work out exactly what is going on. Readers eager for the horror may want detailed descriptions of Leah’s transforming body or the creature she sees in the deep, neither of which come. Instead, we are left with suggestions, gaps, vivid descriptions which fade out to silence. However, this is part of the horror and the tenderness of the novel. Miri can’t fathom what is happening to Leah, and in many ways doesn’t want to. She often turns away, downplays, or just lets Leah change, but she never ignores it. Miri notices everything that goes on in their flat, every small change to Leah’s body and disposition, and the tenderness comes not in Miri nursing her back to health or swearing revenge on the Centre that orchestrated the botched research trip, but in the space Miri gives Leah, the unvoiced wishes for the old Leah, memories leaking into the present, and the final capitulation to what this new Leah needs.
Our Wives Under the Sea is touching and haunting in equal measure, and this power stems from Armfield’s ability to allow some sentences to unfurl in their lyricism and terror and to cut others short, brutally slapping the reader with their brevity. The moments of wit and lightness serve to emphasise the inky depths and melancholia of the surrounding narrative. It’s a novel you’ll sink into, emerging unsettled and unable to verbalise exactly what you have seen.
Our reviewer Natalie Wall had the pleasure of speaking to the author, Julia Armfield…
Natalie: Hello! Thank you so much for speaking to me today! The first question I wanted to ask, which you’ve probably heard a lot, is what draws you to horror, especially the body horror genre?
Julia: Horror’s always been my genre, because I read but I’m not a huge reader. I don’t really read hard but I like watching movies hard, constantly, all the time, so whenever I’m at a panel or something and you have all these really intelligent writers asking ‘what are your inspirations? I love Proust’ and I’m like ‘I watched this movie, When A Stranger Calls, the other day and that’s it’. It’s very embarrassing. But in general, I find horror inspires me on a visual level because it’s so distinctly visual and that’s always the way I think when I’m writing anyway. Typically, something works for me in terms of invoking a scene or an image more than necessarily a plot. But also, when I think on a broader level, I find horror very romantic. Horror and romance stem from the same point, the same point of passion: they both stem from fear of death. And I think there’s something as well that I find very compelling about the fact that horror is a catharsis. Because horror is not necessarily what is disturbing to us; the dread that comes before the horror is always more disturbing to us, do you know what I mean? And I find the horror itself is almost a relief – when something happens.
Body horror is interesting: it’s been a preoccupation of mine for a very long time, I think it’s very obviously a preoccupation in the short story collection I wrote before my novel [Salt Slow]. It’s just always been the type of horror that I gravitate to, because I think it draws on the most fundamental and innate fears: the sense of oneself as a body; the sense of oneself as ultimately fallible because one is a body. There’s something inevitable in the fact that even if something terrible (in a horror movie sense) is not going to happen to you, your body is ultimately going to break down anyway, and so I think that it’s the most universal horror in that way.
N: Yeah that’s definitely the feeling I’ve had towards it as well: body horror is much more immediate, whereas other scary or horrible things that happen are happening over there somewhere, not actually in or to your body. You were saying about being even more influenced by films and images, and is that perhaps something particular to horror as a genre, it’s so much more arresting to see something like that on screen?
J: I think there’s something to be said for the fact that so many young directors start with a horror movie, because so much of being a filmmaker is to do with you having a very specific visual signature, (for example if you look at Prano Bailey-Bond starting with Censor, which is incredibly visually arresting as well as being a horror movie). I think that there is so much that can be said with very little language in horror movies, which I just find so compelling. But I wrote a book I guess, so this isn’t actually relevant.
N: It’s still interesting all the same! What really struck me about Our Wives Under The Sea was that at points you think there’s going to be the big reveal, but it seems to almost stop a bit short of that and not fully show what happened or what caused the thing to happen. Is there any particular reason why you chose to write it like this? Any inspiration that you’ve had from films which don’t quite show the horrific thing either?
J: I think there is, definitely, if you look at Val Lewton or Cat People you know that really original beginnings of Hollywood horror stuff, a lot of the time you don’t see much of anything and everything is kind of hinting. I think there is an argument that you can suggest and suggest and suggest but then if you don’t actually show something at the end you’re cheating. So I always kind of wanted to walk that line a little bit, because I think most of the time, whilst there isn’t necessarily an explanation, you do see things in the novel. I think it also has to do with the fact that I’m really interested in the intersection between realism and genre, and what I want to do most of the time is invoke extremely normal people in semi-extraordinary situations, because I’m completely fascinated, always, by the fact that people deal with things. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think there’s always a sort of Lovecraftian sense that if you see something horrific, you’ll just be horrified and continue being horrified. I don’t think that’s the truth. I think that people make accommodations for most terrible things that happen, in a good way, and in a bad way sometimes, and that means that people are adaptable. Sometimes this can seem like almost a sense of apathy, but I think it’s much more true to the way people deal with things, because people have to render everything as somehow comprehensible. So that was just the way I started writing, and the tone I was writing in, because it’s quite flat or matter-of-fact for a lot of the novel. I don’t think there are too many spikes of horrific things, and quite a lot of the time when there was a horrific image, like you know when her eyeball comes out or whatever, it felt quite important to render it and then stop – because I’m less interested in the high-key than I am in the way that people deal with it after.
N: It’s a really relevant thing isn’t it, how people continue to deal with stuff, and that phrase we’ve all heard too much of over the past couple of years, ‘the new normal’, is sort of proven right here.
J: Definitely, I hate to be like ‘as we have seen proven over the past two years’, but things become normal so much quicker than I think we expect them to, because people don’t have space in their brain to continue being shocked. I think that it’s just not the way that people actually function.
N: In the novel there were all these points where Miri notices these very small things have changed in Leah, and even though they’re small changes they’re a source of horror, because if you’re close to someone any small change is so noticeable and seems bigger than it is. Was this feeling of closeness contributing to the horror something you were trying to evoke in their relationship?
J: Yeah, I think so. I think – just in a broader sense – it was so important to me to invoke a realistic relationship, because I think that when you take care of the specifics then the universal kind of takes care of itself. I think things work when you make them as specific as possible, and therefore because I was trying to invoke a very specific relationship, the small things were exactly what you have to construct it out of – and some aspects of that fed into the horror.
N: What struck me as something which a lot of people would enjoy is the relatability of some of these small moments in their relationship; however, it is also very specific in that it is a queer relationship between two women. Is there some sort of line to walk between making it relatable but also owning what the relationship is, and I guess showing that no, it is specifically about two women, it’s not meant to be relatable to everyone?
J: I think I’ve said this before, but it’s so interesting because I was never really interested in making the relationship accessible to everybody – because you know straight people have many many other books for that. So it became very interesting to me that several people that I know said it seems really universal, and I’m thinking ‘but there is a specificity to moving through the world at an angle to what is considered the norm’, you know? I’ve still written two married cis women, so again, they have all kinds of levels of privilege compared to many other versions of what their relationship could have been. It’s a really good question, because I think if there is a line to walk I’m not particularly interested in walking it: because it is a queer relationship, and I am a queer woman in a queer relationship myself.
N: Something that I find super interesting is that there’s been multiple people recently looking at the relationship between women and the sea, stories about women at sea or under the sea, particularly queer women, things like Hannah Kent’s most recent novel Devotion or the BBC TV show Vigil…
J: Bloody Vigil! Honestly! I was at Cheltenham Lit Fest when I was giving my first reading from this book, lovely festival, lovely people, but so many people came up to me asking ‘Oh did you see Vigil then?’ and I had finished the book by this point!
N: Oh no! I can imagine you must have wanted to curse that TV show! I wonder why there is this connection that people are exploring at the moment, between women and the sea? Another way to explore gender or sexuality in a different setting perhaps?
J: It’s interesting isn’t it, I was thinking about this myself about water and the ocean and queer women, like there is this enormous through-line of the water in Céline Sciamma’s work as well: like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s very defined by its setting, they don’t go under the sea but they’re by the sea. I don’t know the reason for it overall, but from my perspective I have always found it the most compelling setting because I’m interested in porous, liminal landscapes, I’m interested in the point between one thing and another. There’s this part in Our Wives about this sort of this slightly mythical weather phenomenon which is called a ‘sea lung’, where ice forms on the top of the water and it looks like you could walk on it, but you can’t. This comes from an image in a novel I love called The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, which is amazing – and again, completely encircled by the sea. I think there’s something about the sea summing up a lot of different states of matter in one go and that contributing to an idea of many different states of being. I don’t have a more intelligent remark for why a lot of queer women’s stories are also looking at the same thing, perhaps we all just read each other’s work and therefore get obsessed by the same things, but that’s why it compels me.
N: I was thinking about the sea and gender and sexuality, and about how it’s previously been thought of in terms of masculinity: very traditional masculinity, but also masculinities that deviate from the norm (thinking of the homosocial relationships or hinting at homosexual relationships on board ships in all sorts of maritime or sea-based stories). It makes me think of whether just simply it’s women’s turn to explore sexuality on the sea?
J: It’s a very interesting point. I think there might be this subversion of very traditional masculine working relationships with the sea, although I would also point out that with very few exceptions traditional sea monsters are all women: Scylla, Charybdis, Circe, Calypso, Thetis, all of those ones Odysseus encounters. I think there’s something interesting there in the sense not of reclaiming the sea but reclaiming the things that live in the sea. I’ve always been very interested in turning monsters around, and interested in the queer monster: the idea of a more suitable skin being beneath the surface of things, and the way that communicates with the queer identity and reclaiming that. If you ask me, the sea has always been a feminine place, but it’s just kind of the things that we are interested in now are often less heroic and more monstrous. Does that make sense?
N: It does make sense, yeah, we are much less interested in the traditionally heroic now. You see that in so many different genres: the villain or monster is much more compelling.
J: It’s also my prerogative to point to anything I want and say that’s gay, like Master and Commander is a movie about lesbians, Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany are lesbians in that movie.
N: Definitely! I love the way people claim huge things as gay, like yes the moon is gay, the moon is a lesbian, I will not be taking any more questions on this, we have claimed the moon. What you were saying, about things maybe having a more suitable skin underneath, made me think of the literal things that you see in the sea which are often these unusual creatures; these alien looking things. Do you think the deep sea setting provides a unique way of looking at body horror?
J: One thing I find interesting about things that are from the deep sea is that the way that they look is almost entirely because of their environment, I mean, I guess this is the case with everything really, but they have to move in a very particular way, their blood (if they even have blood – which they often don’t) is very specific to them. I’m interested in bodies in extreme circumstances, and the way that things that are altered about them may be because of necessity, and that being a positive thing. Things coming into better versions of themselves, even if it reads like the monstrous. One point which I find quite central is that we think that our world is the real world, but actually a vast percentage of everything on the earth actually exists below the sea. And therefore this kind of generalised sense of things that we consider normal are not necessarily normal, and that feeds into a general metaphor of transformation into something abnormal not being negative, if it makes sense?
N: It does, yeah! Thinking about this surge of sea stories makes me think of a couple of years ago there were lots of space stories and films, and now there is this new environment that people are going into and exploring. What do you think about this idea of cycles or trends of environments and setting?
J: Obviously some of it is literally just fashion and coincidence, but I think there is an uptick in media which encourages us to think of ourselves as incidental, which I think might somewhat come from an eco-minded space, which is really crucial and powerful. But yeah, I don’t know what the next thing might be after space and the ocean…
N: Arctic maybe?
J: Mountains? If you need a book recommendation, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer about the Everest disaster, such a good book! That’s another thing, I’m never going up a bloody mountain. I’m not going to the bottom of the sea, I’m not going to space, I’m not going to the top of a mountain. There’s also a really good Michelle Paver novel called Thin Air about climbing a mountain in the 1930s, she’s written two really good ghost books and one is about climbing a mountain, and the other is called Dark Matter, about the Arctic. Really recommend, they’re great.
N: The idea of the environment being so central to these kinds of stories and being almost a character in itself or a real strong presence feels significant for the horror genre and how place relates to horror.
J: Place is so inextricable to the gothic tradition, because the gothic is so often specifically a house or moor or something like that, and because horror is so visual it is so often rooted in place because horror is about how place and the psyche interact almost all of the time. I’m struggling to think of any really good horror movies that aren’t embedded in the places they inhabit. So much of good horror is about lack of control and vulnerability of the body and the self, and therefore I think that everything that encloses you has to be so key to that.
N: Even when you first think of horror you think of something like a haunted house and all its iterations. There have been interesting looks at different kinds of places in horror recently, thinking of something like Midsommar by Ari Aster which is so bright and Eden-like and opposite to what you might imagine a horror setting to be in many ways, but still so horrific. What was interesting about Our Wives to me was this idea of the place or setting getting inside someone and bringing it somewhere where it isn’t supposed to be.
J: So much of the novel is about how Leah has brought the haunted house back with her. The sea is the haunted house, the submarine is definitely the haunted house, and she herself is still haunted when she returns. But so much more of what was intended to be horrific is the way normality struggles up against the abnormal, and the mind tries to assert itself up against the abnormal, but it actually can’t. The horror is having our life swept away; rather than the horrifying images; like there are some horrible images in the novel, but even more horrific than the body horror is the relationship falling apart. Being unable to take hold of the thing that is important to you in your life and save it from something. The horror is the grief ultimately.
N: There’s so much grief in the novel, whether it’s overt or in quieter moments, and so much of horror is centred around grief and what happens when grief becomes personified or the monster.
J: I completely agree. I think the most successful horror is always centred on trauma in some way, like Ari Aster making incredible films like Midsommar and Hereditary or Mike Flanagan’s TV and movies. You can make an amazing slasher movie and it’s still a good film, but I think that so much of what makes great horror is entirely about the way the brain tries to process trauma, and the things it creates to try and attack and defend itself.
N: Grief permeates the novel: the double grief of Leah and Miri’s mother. What really struck me about it is this idea about when to start grieving someone. Especially when someone is still physically present – but everything you knew about that person and your relationship with them has completely changed. Was that an important thing for you to explore in the novel?
J: The idea of not really knowing when to grieve someone, when you are losing someone who is still here but is perhaps not recognisably themselves, or if someone has disappeared – like when Miri is hanging around on message boards for people whose relatives have disappeared – is important. I think it forces you to recognise that grief is fundamentally selfish and that doesn’t make it bad, but you are fundamentally grieving for yourself without the person. Grief isn’t about being sad for the person because they are dead, grief is being sad about what you have lost. I think for people grieving it’s incredibly hard to accept that, and very brave to accept that. That was very important to the way I was talking about grief in the book.
N: Making a reader face up to what grief is at the core is a little bit of a jolt to the reader, realising it’s not a selfless thing, and seeing grief in a different way to what you’re used to is part of what made the novel so powerful for me personally. Going on to a much lighter question, which feels wrong after such a heavy question, but if readers wanted to read or watch some more sea-based stories, do you have any recommendations of other things they could check out?
J: The Shipping News by Annie Proulx is just a fundamental ocean text, and The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison is a very curious science fiction and he’s just a fantastic writer. It’s not an ocean book but it’s watery. The Deep by Alma Katsu is also great, it’s about the Titanic and selkies. In terms of films, Sea Fever directed by Neasa Hardiman. It’s perhaps a little bit much, post-covid, as it’s about infection on a trawler ship, but it seems like no one saw it and it’s fantastic. Also, I’m not recommending it, but there is a movie called Underwater with Kristen Stewart in it, which is about Kristen Stewart at the bottom of the Mariana Trench – and there’s a monster. I can’t recommend it, because it is awful, but I watched it many many times.
Thank you very much to Julia for answering our questions! To buy a copy of Our Wives Under the Sea, click the image below…