Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

“The deep sea is a haunted house: a place in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness.”

The cover, title, premise, and early hype around this novel made me think that I was going to love it. Alas, as it often seems to be the case, Our Wives Under The Sea did not work for me. If you are interested in this novel I recommend that you check out more positive reviews.
At first, I gave this novel the benefit of the doubt, but with each chapter, my expectations sunk (ah-ah) lower and lower. This is one of those novels that prioritises language over say characters or story, which is something that I’m sure will work for many types of readers, it just so happens that I am not one of them. Through alternating chapters, Our Wives Under The Sea follows wives Miri and Leah. Their marriage and relationship are very much in limbo after Leah returns from a deep-sea mission gone awry. The experience has clearly altered Leah and Miri struggles to reconcile herself to the fact that the woman she married is no more. In Miri’s chapter, we read of Leah’s strange behaviours: she takes long baths, avoids leaving the house, has frequent nose-bleeds, and seems wholly disassociated from her surroundings. Miri’s chapters also give us some insight into their relationship prior to this disastrous mission (how they met, how they were as a couple, etc.). In Leah’s chapters, which are far shorter, and are meant to highlight her alienated state of mind, we mostly learn about what went on in that mission.

“Every couple, I think, enjoys its own mythology, recollections like notecards to guide you round an exhibition.”

In spite of the intimacy achieved by focusing solely on Miri and Leah (secondary characters are very much at the margins of the narrative), I found the novel’s overall tone cold. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I like plenty of authors who write in this slightly ‘distancing’ way (Jhumpa Lahiri and Brandon Taylor come to mind). However, I have to care or be interested in the people they write about. Here, surprisingly enough, I found myself feeling nothing for either Miri or Leah. Their voices were too similar, something that I found rather frustrating. Their inner-monologues and their observations (about others, the past, themselves) were eerily alike. Which made it difficult for me to see them as individuals, but rather they merged into this one water-obsessed figure. And speaking of water, gesù. We have water metaphors and imagery, water-related speculations, and conversations on water/sea/ocean/sea creatures. I understand that the water & the sea are central themes of this novel (if not the theme) however it got repetitive and, worse still, contrived. The author’s language was impressionistic, trying too hard to be direct and gritty (“red mouth in the morning, red chin, red spill into the sink” / “Miri bit at her skin of her lip so often that kissing tasted bloody; metallic zip of a licked battery”). Her prose was too dramatic, full of flashy metaphors (“beneath her shirt, the bones of her shoulder swing the way a hanger will when knocked inside a wardrobe”). There were paragraphs or reflections that I liked or that struck me as insightful and sharp but I wish that I’d felt more attached or emotionally invested in the story. I had a hard time ‘believing’ in our two main characters, perhaps due to a combination of their voices sounding too much alike and they were both so…water obsessed? Their personalities were vague and the author seemed more intent on evoking a certain atmosphere than on providing us with fully dimensional and nuanced characters.
All in all, this novel was a big disappointment. I went in thinking that I would love it, realised a few pages in that the writing was going for this simultaneously dreamlike and raw sort of vibe (which did nothing for me here) and found myself bored by most of the narrative. It didn’t elicit any particular feelings or reactions in me. This is the kind of novel that screams MFA. It wants to be stylish and edgy but (and here i remind you that i am merely expressing my own entirely subjective opinion so please don’t @ me) but feels contrived and unconvincing. A lot of the dialogues didn’t ring true to life, characters’ reactions were slightly off, and the narrators’ voices were much to similar (that occasionally they address the reader or say things like ‘you see’ made it all more gimmicky).

my rating: ★★½

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