‘Wives’ a Strange Tale of Love and Sea Monsters

Diamonds are forever, just like love, or so countless jewelry stores want you to believe. But entering into marriage, or any long-term relationship, means having a lot of faith in the love you bring to it. The idea, and the hope, is that people can grow together and their love can grow stronger, regardless of what life throws at them or how they grow and change through the years.

In Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea, that growth isn’t gradual, but sudden after one half of the couple has a work trip gone very wrong—and the change is literal.

Leah, a marine biologist, was supposed to be gone for a short, routine submarine expedition. Six months later, she returns quieter than she was, without an explanation of what happened or why they were delayed so long. Her wife, Miri, is glad she’s back, even though she’s clearly reeling from the experience. But the expected trauma from whatever happened beneath the waves isn’t the only change Leah displays. She spends hours in the bathtub, and the only thing Miri can get her to eat or drink is saltwater. 

Although Miri brushes off Leah’s delayed return and her strange behavior since to her friends, the worry begins to eat at her. The Leah she knew, it seems, never resurfaced from the ocean, and Miri’s not sure who she’s living with now. Things only get worse when the sister of one of Leah’s colleagues contacts her with a story Miri doesn’t want to hear. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, a six-months-ago Leah tells the story of what happened in the sub, and what they all found at the bottom of the sea.

The cover of Our Wives Under the Sea, featuring the title and author written over a sunset-orange glow in the sky and upon the waves, which in this light look more like mountains than water.

Although the chapters alternate between the two women, Miri has the bulk of the narrative load, detailing what came before and contrasting it with the unknown that is the present. Her recollection is rich enough that although we’ve never known the “real” Leah, we somehow still get a good idea of the chasm that is Miri’s grief of this living person, and the uncertainty that touches every aspect of life now. As she has to stay closer and closer to Leah to support her mysteriously afflicted wife, the bubble around the story feels like it grows tighter and tighter.

Still, the story about what happened after the submarine expedition is mainly intriguing because of how little we know about what happened down there, and for that, Leah’s account sheds only so much light. It isn’t until the end that anything concrete is revealed, and even then the link between what happened in the submarine and what is happening to Leah on the surface is unclear. In that sense, Our Wives Under the Sea stubbornly keeps its secrets, sacrificing that detail and clarity for a sort of literary refusal of resolution.

Which may be the most disturbing part of the novel. In the same way that Miri doesn’t know what’s happening to Leah or why, neither does Leah—and neither do we. The real-world analogy I kept reaching for as I read and since finishing it was trauma: a major event or series of events that splinter away the old person from the new. It’s confusing and disorienting enough for the person at the center, but also for those around them, particularly those close enough that the affected person can’t hide the changes. In one of Miri’s worst moments, she wonders if things would be easier if she could simply mourn being widowed, rather than navigating this new life with the person who still wears the face of her loved one. That’s a real scenario, and a terrifying one.

Love may be made of stern enough stuff to last forever, but counting on it means having a lot of hope that life will remain more or less steady for decades to come. Our Wives Under the Sea is a fantastical, but uncomfortably grounded, metaphor of what happens when things don’t go as planned.

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