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Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield review: A mystical thriller with serious depth

Fans of horror and suspense will delight in this multi-layered study of isolation and loss.

Our Wives Under the Seais an arresting novel that moves quietly. Told from the alternating perspectives of Miri and her wife Leah, the story revolves around the strange and mysterious aftereffects of an undersea research mission gone awry. 

Julia Armfield seamlessly treads the genres of speculative fiction, heartrending romance, and deep-sea, ecological thriller. With an absorbing and pleasurable lyrical style, she allows haunting suggestions to percolate under the surface of tender moments that otherwise navigate grief, love, and letting go.

Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield is out now (Pan Macmillan)

As Armfield deftly puts it, ”The deep sea is a haunted house: a place in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness. Unstill, is the word Leah uses.”

It is in this space of creeping horror, of suspense, of bodily peculiarity, where Armfield especially excels.

From Miri’s perspective, we are introduced to the novel’s central question: Leah’s disappearance under sea, and her inexplicable return six months later.

In a fragmented style, we receive memories of how the two main characters met, their relationship before the disappearance, and of Miri’s time without Leah, where she navigates angst and hope while suspended in unknowns, in a place lacking closure.

At one point, as an intriguing, almost bizarre, coping mechanism that feels somehow relatable, Miri begins to face her loss by visiting online forums loosely relevant to her experience, one of which is a group for ‘women who liked to roleplay that their husbands had gone to space.’

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Amidst all of this is the symbolism of sound, whether in the form of a neighbour’s television or of unfamiliar noises underwater, which reminds us that each characters’ sense of isolation weaves together with an eerie, unnerving suggestion of never being alone.

It is in this space of creeping horror, of suspense, of bodily peculiarity, where Armfield especially excels. This novel is exquisitely grotesque, surreal, and elegiac in equal measure.

Alycia Pirmohamed is a journalist and author @a_pirmohamed

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