This is Not My Beautiful Wife: Review of Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
Our Wives Under the Sea. Julia Armfield. Flatiron Books, July 12, 2022.
“Every horror movie ends the way you know it will.” And what is love, Julia Armfield’s debut novel asks, if not a kind of slow-burn horror story—an attempt at living with an unknowable entity tinged, always, by the fear of loss?
Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea is a poignant and unsettling queer Gothic romance, its portrayal of a relationship’s quiet, devastating erosion by turns melancholy, grotesque, surreal, and sublime. Anchored in the ebb and flow of Miri and Leah’s alternating narratives, the novel chronicles the married couple’s efforts to live in the midst, and wake, of a crisis that defies easy explanation.
The novel opens on a deep-sea expedition gone awry. Leah, a marine biologist with an infectious love for the sea’s mysteries, finds herself trapped in a malfunctioning submersible at the ocean floor while her wife, Miri, is left alone and without answers. To cope with her wife’s extended, unexplained absence, Miri turns to the internet for solace: specifically, a role-playing forum for the earthbound spouses of imaginary astronauts. “MHIS [my husband in space] was such a loving partner, a typical post might run, a friend and helpmeet, a wonderful father, but ever since he came back things have been different, I wonder if he’s CBW.” Only after Leah’s startling reappearance months later does this last acronym—“Came Back Wrong”—begin to fully resonate with Miri, whose initial relief soon gives way to the disquieting anxiety that the woman she loves has been changed, irrevocably.
Like Armfield’s haunting and equally waterlogged short story collection, salt slow (2019), Our Wives revels in how often the intimate and mundane teeter on the edge of the unsettling—if we dare keep our eyes open. Longing for someone who might sympathize with her unique situation, Miri instead encounters a message board up in arms over the credibility of one contributor’s trauma fantasy. This online discourse offers a wryly effective reflection on the readerly expectations that accrue around slow-burn literary fiction versus speculative sci-fi: how do we navigate a novel that examines the complexities of queer domesticity, but can also be read as a tense undersea thriller with undercurrents of cosmic horror?
That Our Wives can be read as at once queer romance and queer horror is only fitting, given how the two women fell in love over “watching movies by Cronenberg and Bava alone in cinemas emptied out by summer weather” before their lives took on a comparably disquieting hue. Like something straight from a Cronenberg flick, Leah’s body is changing: “silvered over, oystered at her elbow creases and around the neck,” she spends hours submerged in a bathtub overflowing with homemade saltwater, drowning out Miri’s queries of concern with “the swelling, the oozing, the sinking” interference of a white-noise machine. For as much as horror movies might capture their striking situation, they fall painfully short of affording Miri–still reeling after nursing her mother through a demanding convalescence–any clear remedy for repairing their relationship.
In this way, Our Wives deftly eludes genre expectations, delivering its visceral horrors in the reflective lilt of literary fiction, and telling a captivating lesbian love story whose truths about grief and loss are only deepened by the fact that Leah may or may not be developing gills. Details of the “whole bright dailiness” of Miri and Leah’s lives together before the expedition crystalize and coalesce like slivers of sea glass, vital nothings polished to a frosted glow by Armfield’s luminous prose. If at times the two narrative voices feel nearly indistinguishable from one another, it is in no small part due to how often Miri and Leah depend on imagining the other’s voice for solace–whether to break the silence of the submarine, or from across a locked bathroom door.
Armfield evokes their intimacy in the language they share, the secret, effortless grammar of a life spent together that Miri desperately attempts to preserve as it dissolves before her eyes. “I want to explain her in a way that would make you love her,” she explains: “It’s easy to understand why someone might love a person but far more difficult to push yourself down into that understanding, to pull it up to your chin like bedclothes and feel it settling around you as something true.” And so they both shore up small, glittering fragments of their lives together against the possibility of losing one another: a teasing grin illuminated by the glow of a pseudo-documentary, a photo of a giant Pacific octopus named Pamela, a first kiss “wet-palmed, tongues stickled with ginger.”
In its otherworldly and unostentatious lyricism, Our Wives feels of a piece with the folklore-tinged works of Daisy Johnson and Sarah Moss, where the natural world seethes– restless, unknowable–just beneath the surface of the richly interpersonal plot. And yet Armfield never flinches from punctuating a moment of quiet tension with a gorgeously wrought shock. She has a keen eye for the body’s sticky vulnerability, the unsettling beauty that might be glimpsed in pores glistening with blood, in silvering scales of skin ringing the bathtub drain, or the quivering viscosity of an eye.
“What you have to understand,” Miri recalls Leah explaining, “is that things can thrive in unimaginable conditions. All they need is the right sort of skin.” In more ways than one, Armfield’s novel charts the all-too human difficulty of adapting to the prospect of loss: Miri, an anxious late bloomer, loses the person she finally dared to let herself love without fear, while Leah loses her insatiable curiosity, becoming a curiosity herself. Because this is a horror story, we may guess how this story will conclude; but because Our Wives Under the Sea is also a love story, its conclusion is far from foregone, and cuts to the quick. In Armfield’s hands, horror and romance fashion “the right sort of skin,” a painstaking adaptation to circumstances at once mundane, unimaginable, and utterly true.
Sam Botz is a writer, scholar, and reader. A Visiting Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, her research interests include eighteenth-century archives of feeling, speculative fictions, environmental justice, and doomed polar expeditions. She lives in Chicago with her cat, Moira, and her dear friend and cat-co-parent.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB work. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.