Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield – deep emotions | fiction

JJulia Armfield’s first book, a collection of stories called Salt Slow, set out a method. Choose a quotidian phenomenon – problem skin, say, or sleeplessness – and use it as a foundation stone for relentlessly logical, haunted buildings reminiscent of the contemporary gothic of Mariana Enríquez or Guadalupe Nettel. So a convent schoolgirl with problem skin, always shedding and peeling, undergoes a metamorphosis; or a town fills with Sleeps, each having stepped out of its owner “like a passenger from a railway carriage”. It is tricky to describe what happens without giving away the endings – which, when you become used to her method de ella, are often prefigured in the beginnings, and in the classical tales her literalism de ella both defamiliarises and renews: wolf-siblings, maenads, a gorgon. The effect is only heightened by a deliberate, vivid realism of place (Newport, Manchester, Glasgow; rented flats, bars in university towns) and a discerning interest in the shifting power structures of relationships.

The collection ends with the extraordinary Salt Slow, in which a man and a pregnant woman find themselves in a small boat on an ocean that has drowned everything they know – a conceit that reaches both forward, to the predicted effects of climate change, and back , through Noah’s flood to creation. The world shrinks, to “lambent pupils on the water”, the “enterprising tentacles” of octopuses, their “liquid squeeze”. There is a sense that in this new reality, where whirlpools are “teeth in the ocean”, and the creatures of air and sea are growing “monstrously outsized”, humans are regressing to prehistoric beginnings.

Her debut novel, Our Wives Under the Sea, takes this watery theme, adds it to the kernel of another of her stories (Cassandra After, in which the narrator’s girlfriend returns from the dead), and expands. It is told in two alternating voices: Leah’s de ella, in the form of a journal she kept on a deep-sea dive that stranded her and two others in undersea darkness; and that of her wife, Miri, who presumed her lost, after Leah’s return from her. The tale travels, with Leah and the submarine, down through the missing six months and the ocean’s vertical zones (sunlight, twilight, midnight, abyssal, hadal), while on land Miri tracks how their relationship is changing in the present. Given the length of time and silence, it would not, even under the best circumstances, be easy to resume where they left off; but Leah has also changed in fundamental ways, and Miri is forced into a renegotiation.

There are tropes, here, of pure horror: overt references to Jaws, voices heard by some and not others, terrible smells, a mysterious research centre. They keep the novel moving, but Armfield’s quarry feels larger: this is a kind of Orpheus story about transformation and return, a concern underlined by an epigraph from Moby-Dick which reads, in part: “Consider the subtleness of the sea … do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life.”

Armfield draws on collective fears: the ocean, always, but also deep space, other people, God, madness, the unconscious (our “sunken thoughts”), dementia. The unknown is embodied as a physicalized idea. Melville’s island in the soul becomes tight locked-down rooms – the sub, Miri and Leah’s flat – surrounded by a lapping dark. As in her stories from Ella, Armfield is extremely good at anatomizing the women’s relationship: the self-defensive blindnesses, the resentments and rituals and angers, grief for vanished joys – all the small moments of which lasting love consists.

There are clever lines, everywhere, and wry, funny ones (“higher education seems to have leaked out of her in her mid-20s … replaced … by methods of treating black mold, by passwords and roast chicken recipes”). Teeth are a particular obsession – shining teeth on TV; toothaches; the knowledge that “to know the ocean… is to recognize the teeth it keeps half-hidden”. But there are many incidental beauties, too: Armfield has a poet’s ability to make a phrase both new and inevitable.

Which is both one of the great strengths of her work as a whole, and a nagging worry. Perhaps because of their reliance on logic and myth, her short stories de ella manage, in a weird way, to be both original and predictable. And what works in a few intense pages does not necessarily work at length: Our Wives Under the Sea feels stretched slightly too thinly over the body of an idea, especially as there is also a lot of nothing much happening. There are good reasons for passivity and lack of feeling – there’s nothing to do in the dark under the sea; Miri is in a state of denial and shock on land – but the risk in building characters who stare at what’s happening to them as through a veil is that the reader feels that way, too. And yet there is still real power here. “God keep thee!” ends the quote from Melville. “Push not off from that isle, you can never return.”

Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield is published by Picador (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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