Along with my list of books read, I keep a list of particularly excellent quotes from those books, insights or particularly poetic turns of phrase that I know I’ll want to revisit. I don’t record things from every book; some novels have great plots or characters without ever really hitting that point where brilliant insight finds perfect expression.
I started writing down quotes from Our Wives Under the Sea by the second page. Pick any page at random and you’ll find a burnt tongue turn of phrase, something unexpected enough to make you pause and so perfectly fitting as to set you off reading again, wanting more. Why hasn’t anyone said it this way before? was my quiet refrain throughout the book. Why didn’t anyone realize that this, this was the perfect way to say it?
Julia Armfield understands the lyricism of simplicity, letting her prose flow naturally from character insight and situation, never overwrought but never anything less than nuanced. It dances from poignant to profound, knowing so well that whatever universal sentiments she wants to express, they can only be found in the particular. Everyone understands that fizzy first-date feeling, sitting close together and watching some movie, but it works so spectacularly in Our Wives Under the Sea because it’s not everybody’s first date—it’s Miri and Leah’s first date. They don’t watch just anything; they watch Jaws, complete with an adorable level of enthusiasm that only a biologist can bring to the experience.
The setting may be divided between the sea and the land, but it is also always the marriage—Leah and Miri’s marriage is practically a place, one they each carry around with them, one that never stops influencing their actions. This gentle intimacy running through the book renders even the most unsettling scenes eerie instead of outright frightening. There is too much love for Miri to be afraid of her wife. Frightened for her, certainly, but not of her. Not with their long, lovely history, which unfolds in gentle waves against the implacable horror of the now.
Leah is an experienced deep sea researcher with many expeditions under her belt. The trip that sets off this story, while remarkable because of the depth to which the team plan to descend, was nothing special in terms of mission. It was a short, purely exploratory trip. They didn’t know how long they would be forced to remain at depths incompatible with human life. They didn’t know what they would find.
But what did they find? Leah cannot articulate it, and Miri cannot even begin to guess from the disparate oddities that afflict her wife. Not that she entirely wants to start guessing. Miri stays flailingly on the surface of her life, trying not to panic and thereby admit that her situation is dire. She is more comfortable with the low-level hypochondria she inherited from her mother, fussing over the details of shopping and tidying instead of dealing with the big issue head on.
I wonder if others will find this tendency strange. I don’t. I’m sure there are people whose panic looks like the kind of spiraling thoughts and hyperventilation we see so often on screen, but mine looks a lot like Miri’s, the kind of fear that becomes anxiety, because anxiety is so much more familiar and so much easier to deal with than existential threat. Miri has been anxious her whole life, but predictably, that doesn’t actually prepare her for the unexpected. How could she have anticipated a wife who has come back wrong, strange textures to her skin and a craving for salt? How can she get answers when the Centre won’t even return her calls?
I really appreciate that Armfield only really ever refers to the research facility as the Centre. It’s faceless and blandly intimidating from first to last, with nothing for either Miri or the reader to latch on to as a clue about its true purpose. It’s just the center—the dropped stone from which all ripples of the book expand outward. And like a stone, it sinks beyond retrieval long before the waves go still. This is not about finding the Centre’s purpose or plots. This is about the human drama of Leah’s return.
Leah too, as we learn more about her trip, remained as much as possible on the surface of her thoughts. It’s a form of self-defense as well, although against what is much less obvious. Is there anything down there with them? Or are they alone, so utterly alone in the darkness? Which is worse? Leah cannot bring herself to speculate because there is no external validation for any of her theories. Trying to get answers only makes things worse.
I’ll admit, though, that I was hoping to see a bit more of The Martian from the scientists in the submarine. Shouldn’t three highly trained, experienced researchers at least try to maintain a sense of the days, keep records, talk to each other? But they seem to go mad almost at once, and Jelka, who is a devout Catholic, is the worst among them. She becomes a zealot almost at once, gibbering prayers into the darkness and irritating her crewmates to no end. Leah and Matteo do better, but still fall prey to the eerie emptiness of the deep.
I think we’re all afraid of it, at some point or maybe at all points, quietly to ourselves: the idea that even our best beloved person has depths we cannot reach. That there are vast oceanic spaces that both connect us to and divide us from other people, and that we are part of that division, that our own selves have unspeakable places to which one day we might descend, willing or not.
Language gives us an implicit association between depth and profundity, but Armfield disagrees: the deep places are murky with confusion and despair, while the surface is where life happens, quite literally. The most profound bonds are expressed not in dangerous journeys or huge sacrifices; those things are the product of the far more important acts of the everyday, the thousand little gestures that make up a marriage. Leah deals with the bills because she knows how much Miri hates it. Miri doesn’t know much about oceanography, but she wants to hear every little thing Leah wants to explain to her.
The ending is awe-full and awful in its acceptance of this profundity. Miri does not understand what is happening to her wife, does not have a plan or a clue. She can only guess at what will make Leah happy and whole, and so she tries to do it. Despite all risks and consequences to herself, she tries her damnedest to do it. It’s so rare to see a novel that resists, from beginning to end, the tendency toward Hollywood dramatization, the insistence that everyone be an action star or a detective or even a final girl. Miri is no expert, but neither is she terrorized into helplessness or violence. She’s just a woman who loves her wife. That’s enough, Armfield says. In fact, that’s exactly and all she and any of us needs to be.
Our Wives Under the Sea comes out tomorrow, July 12, 2022.