Sea change: Julia Armfield's 'Our Wives Under the Sea'

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Tuesday July 5, 2022
Share this Post:
author Julia Armfield photo: Sophie Davidson
author Julia Armfield photo: Sophie Davidson

British author Julia Armfield's 2019 debut short story collection "Salt Slow" emerged to wide acclaim for its sheer diversity, darkly magical elements, and the author's seemingly natural storytelling talents. Swathed in gothic, supernatural themes, the collection's schematic danced around how fantasy and reality tempt and tease each other, intertwining limbs and fusing ideas, with an outcome that's unfailingly grim yet unimaginably fascinating.

Populating these stories are lady wolfs, a convent schoolgirl shedding her skin, a cabal of shady specters who profit from the insomnia of sleepless urbanites, and giant watery sea creatures dominating oceans that have swollen to catastrophic levels.

She continues exploring this watery metamorphosis from the deep murky depths of a just-published debut novel involving a lesbian married couple whose longtime relationship buckles beneath the weight of one partner's eventual mental and physical disfigurement.

From the opening paragraph, there is already a riff apparent in Miri and Leah's union. Three weeks after her return home, Leah suffers nosebleeds, bleeding gums, stares longingly at her bathwater, recoils from everyday smells, tastes, and sensations, and can't stop talking about her official exploratory submarine journey down into the ocean's depths where it's surprisingly "unstill" and "farther down than you think," especially after being stranded there with her crew for six months.

Sitting across the table is her other half, Miri, who can't help but watch her partner slowly fade from recognition into obscurity, sometimes by violently vomiting up saltwater or through skin that has become loose and slippery. To Miri, Leah is vanishing in plain sight, as if she's wading in the ocean yet her blanket and belongings back on the beach have surrendered to longshore drift and shifted down the sand.

The storytelling duties volley back and forth between Miri's real-time narration and Leah's disturbing submarine diary. While each offers frank perspectives on their experiences, Miri's emotional plea demonstrates how distant each has become to the other while Leah's contributes curious details on what exactly happened at the bottom of the ocean when her research submarine suddenly went off-line, lost lights and communication, and descended uncontrollably...for hours.

Representing how the book's intensity and unsettling eeriness evolves over the course of its storyline, Armfield's masterpiece is uniquely split into five sections, each representing the five descending layers to the ocean, from the sunlight zone down to the unexplored but not uninhabited Hadal Zone some thirty-six thousand feet below sea level.

Much more harrowing developments bubble to the surface of the women's relationship, which has devolved into meals eaten separately and spans of awkward silences "like a spine through the new shape our relationship has taken."

The sad hard edges of the story are softened by Armfield's smooth, graceful prose gliding all the uncomfortable details into place while still taking time to impart immaculately crafted figurative language. At a friend's wedding, bridesmaids were "goose-fleshed in summer dresses" all standing in line "as if in preparation for a hanging."

Sometimes, it seems obvious that the story is really about the evolution of relationships and how they ebb and flow with time, either flourishing with love and devotion or suffering the cruel erosion of trust and compatibility. After all, beaches are constantly moving, so why not relationships?

Aligned with the curiosities of human nature, we all love to see how things fall apart just as much as how things fit together like pizza slices: messy, unhealthy, yet so undeniably tempting and satisfying.

Armfield's tale is a blissfully strange, poetically written, fantastical voyage into a relationship whose descent into the fathoms of obscurity is in and of itself a cruel yet voyeuristically engrossing entertainment.

'Our Wives Under the Sea' by Julia Armfield, Flatiron Books, $21.50.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.