Our Wives Under the Sea
- By Julia Armfield
- Flatiron Books
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
- July 15, 2023
A woman struggles to make sense of her partner’s decline.
Those who lose loved ones to a gradual and progressive mental disorder endure a distinctive grieving process. Julia Armfield’s debut novel, Our Wives Under the Sea,is an exploration of this kind of loss, but it’s told through the lens of romantic horror.
The story unfolds in alternating narratives — through Leah’s account of a catastrophic submarine mission, and her wife’s account of their struggle upon Leah’s return. By the time she comes home from the extended undersea mission, it’s clear Leah has been irreparably changed. She was trapped on a sub in dubious conditions for months longer than planned. Now, she hardly speaks. Her wife, Miri, wonders if she’s suffering from “a resurfacing glitch” or decompression sickness.
Leah’s symptoms are very disturbing. She vomits up huge amounts of water. Her skin becomes pale and bloodless. She spends hours sitting in the bathtub. As Miri serves her glasses of saltwater, eventually the only thing Leah will digest, she struggles with the dawning realization that her wife has become a stranger.
But just as with her own mother, who died of dementia, Miri becomes an unwitting enabler, almost an accomplice to Leah’s demise. Although she tries to cope, she never asks Leah why she is drawn to sitting endlessly in the tub as the water grows cold. The couple’s therapy sessions are unhelpful and inconclusive. So, Miri finds herself going over scenes from the past with the Leah she once loved, at one point observing:
“It’s easy to underreact, because a part of you is wired to assume it isn’t real. When you stop underreacting, the horror is unique because it is, unfortunately, endless.”
Miri feels incredibly alone. She spends hours on hold to a helpline that never picks up. When speaking with friends, she keeps the severity of Leah’s condition largely to herself. Her friend Carmen attempts to commiserate, but Miri reflects, “Too often I find myself stoppered by unwillingness to admit to basic frustrations to look at her across a coffee shop table and respond to her humdrum admissions with a straight me too.”
When writing in the voice of Miri, author Armfield is at her best, and her insights into the grieving process sometimes stop you in your tracks. “The sense of loss was convoluted by an ache of possibility, by the almost-but-not-quite negligible hope of reprieve,” she writes at one stage.
And later, “The grief process is also the coping process and if the grief is frozen by ambiguity, by the constant possibility of reversal, then so is the ability to cope.”
Miri’s lack of connection with others is echoed in Leah’s narrative, which, although more straightforward than Miri’s, is also not as compelling. Leah’s story is less insightful and rather thinly stretched. While she describes the trauma of being trapped aboard a malfunctioning submarine, she doesn’t come across as traumatized, nor does her experience foreshadow the damage Miri observes upon her return.
In fact, it’s altogether unclear, given Leah’s character as we come to know it, why or to whom she is directing her narrative.
Nevertheless, the prose throughout the novel is frequently moving and evocative, and it kept me turning the pages. Armfield has a deep feel for language, although she sometimes makes use of it to obscure a lack of psychological depth. She also indulges in occasional falsely lyrical passages — for example, when Miri “woke up at three to a white rubber necking moon at the window, which I chose not to find unsettling.”
Quibbles aside, the final scene in Miri’s narrative absolutely floored me. As a description of loss and letting a loved one go, it moves me to tears just thinking about it now. So, if you stick with Our Wives Under the Sea through some of its labored and rambling passages, you will have earned this denouement. Getting to the author’s closing insight is well worth the wait.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2022.]
Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast Read Me a Poem for the American Scholar.