OUR WIVES UNDER THE SEA by Julia Armfield

When Leah’s submarine vanishes without trace during her latest deep sea mission, her wife Miri accepts that she has lost her forever. She struggles emotionally, receiving very little information from Leah’s employers at the Centre, until one day – unexpectedly – Leah returns.

But Miri can’t be sure that the woman who is now living in their home is the same woman who she once called her wife. As well as subtle changes in her behaviour, there are more alarming physical transformations happening, things which provoke unsettling thoughts in Miri’s mind.

Our Wives Under the Sea is the debut novel from Julia Armfield, and it’s taut and atmospheric, something that I think will appeal greatly to those who enjoy literary thrillers. The quality of writing is superb, with each chapter alternating between Miri and Leah’s viewpoint, so that bit by bit we gain an insight into each woman’s thoughts, slowly revealing details that make up a bigger picture. Leah’s entries tend to explain what happened during her time on the stricken vessel. Her descriptions of the increasingly bizarre behaviour of her two fellow crew members add to the sense of weirdness that pervades the pages of the book.

The vastness and depth of the oceans is a fear that has always bothered me – it’s called thalassophobia, trivia fans – and this short novel does a great job of tapping into that fear. Throughout Leah’s chapters she discusses her experience of being on a submarine in extremely deep, dark waters, and it’s terrifying and fascinating in equal measure. The relationship between the two women is also portrayed well, especially in Miri’s memories of when they first got together, highlighting a stark contrast between the relaxed dynamic of those early days and the current uneasy relationship between the two. Miri’s entries also document the present – the after-effects of Leah’s isolation beneath miles of black water – and how her wife’s change is accelerating both her physical state and also the real aspects of their marriage. This is a book about romance and grief, memory and body-horror, delivered as a nicely-paced literary novel with a neat structure.

Reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (specifically Annihilation) and calling to mind the idea of the Changeling in folklore and legend, this terrific short novel has much to enjoy, both in the high calibre of its prose and the intriguing premise of it story. It comes highly recommended and marks Julia Armfield as an emerging writer whose career I will follow with interest.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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