Witnessing my meltdown, a well-intentioned flight attendant told me a white lie: there was a sequel to the film. “Jack isn’t actually dead, it turns out” she explained in a syrupy Southern accent. “He comes right on back up and is reunited with Rose.” It wasn’t until late into my teenage years, after making an offhand reference to Titanic 2 in front of a group of stoned friends, choking on smoky laughter, that I realized the lie I’d been living.
Death and the ocean beguile Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea, a work that plumbs with striking subtlety what it feels like to live with the mystery of both. The book explores the transformations that test intimacy, ones that are perhaps even more unsettling than the sure fact of death, the guarantee that we (like Jack) will die and (like Rose) will lose the people we love. Armfield crumbles the fantasy of return that underpinned my make-believe Titanic sequel and tells a different story, one that asks readers to wrestle with not only the fact that all things — lives, loves, bodies — transform, but also that we must learn how to continue on after they do. The lovers are Leah and Miri, a married lesbian couple in their thirties. Leah, a marine biologist, leaves for a submarine deep-sea research excursion bankrolled by a vaguely sinister institution called the Centre for Marine Enquiry that is supposed to last weeks but ends up lasting months, leaving Miri to assume the worst back on land.
The narrative is told from a split perspective, alternating between Leah’s journal kept during her submarine journey and Miri’s voice following Leah’s return to their shared home. Miri’s accounts are interspersed with flashbacks to happier times in their relationship that capture the electricity of their initial connection as well as the sinking ache of its dissolution after an emotionally distant version of Leah returns to land plagued by a constellation of mysterious physical symptoms (the Centre uses the vague term “resurfacing glitch” to account for the changes). The couple continues to exchange words, yet in “a very fundamental sense” they “say nothing,” leading Miri to realize that, prior to Leah’s return, she had been wrong “to assume that alone was somewhere you could go, rather than somewhere you had to be left.”
Centered around Leah’s attempt to settle back at home, the story masterfully captures a different kind of intimate grief: the feeling of separateness that continues between the two women even after Leah resurfaces. After an experience of transformation, Armfield suggests, reunion can feel as much like a loss as it does a regaining. Blending elements of horror, gothic, and realism, Our Wives Under the Sea takes the bottom of the ocean as a speculative topography on which to explore the terrors of the mysterious gravitational pull we exert on each other.
In Armfield’s work, loss refuses to congeal into a discrete event like the one depicted in that climactic, haunting scene in Titanic. While an iceberg sinks Jack and Rose’s dreams of forever, Miri and Leah’s difficulties are better metaphorized by a different frozen shape, one that queers notions of permanence altogether. Midway through the novel, Miri and Leah see what is called a “sea lung,” a kind of ice that forms on the surface of the ocean after the air changes temperature suddenly to produce “a drifting anomaly of matter, solid and yet not quite so.” Ancient explorers, Leah explains, once thought these strange, floating shapes to be “some organ of the sea’s internal structure come loose and straining skywards.” The sea lung, whose beauty congeals from chaos and whose solidity relies on change, aptly captures the structure of the queer intimacy rendered in Armfield’s work.
Letting go, for Armfield’s characters, is an ongoing, watery thing: one that feels more like a gradual drip whose exact shape and source is difficult to trace. Perhaps this is why the novel is sprinkled with unexplained, unnerving leakages — from Leah’s perpetually bleeding gums to the constant stream of noise creeping into the couple’s apartment from their upstairs neighbors’ TV. In reference to a friend, Miri remarks that her higher education “seems to have leaked out of her around her mid-to-late twenties, replaced in the main by methods of treating black mold, by passwords and roast chicken recipes and the symptoms of cervical cancer and thrush.” Miri and Leah are haunted, in different ways, by their inability to plug up the gaps in their ebbing sense of certainty. “I used to think it was possible to know enough to escape from the panic of not knowing,” Leah muses, “but I realize now that you can never learn enough to protect yourself, not really.” Armfield’s characters seem to be vexed by all that they no longer know, or try to know, or wish to know — by what Herman Melville, quoted in the epigraph, calls “the horrors of the half-known life.”
Armfield charges at the question of what it feels like to live on the edges of knowledge, infusing moments of horror and surrealism into the everyday, something she proved herself adept at with her first book of short stories, Salt Slow (Pan Macmillan, 2019). Armfield’s willingness to mix generic tropes is captured in her two epigraphs, one from Moby-Dick, the other from Jaws, a film that Miri and Leah, we find out, watch on an early date. There are flashes of levity in the book, mostly in the flashbacks of inside jokes the couple built together in the early days of their relationship, or when a despondent Miri seeks community on a message board for wives roleplaying that their husbands were lost in space or have returned but CBW (“came back wrong”). But the novel’s sense of levity, like its sense of realism, is punctured by moments that could be taken from a body horror film, its characters constantly treading the thin line that separates the tasks of daily life from horror. As Miri sits on the phone, stuck in a never-ending loop of prerecorded lines trying to reach a representative at the Centre, readers feel the crushing mundanity of the shape that horror can take when navigating loss in bureaucracy’s automated labyrinths.
In the text, the body also becomes a site of horrifying, half-known symptoms, a place, like the haunted house Armfield evokes in the novel’s opening line to describe the sea, “in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness.” Leah’s skin, which has become “oystered” since returning to land, sloughs off in the saltwater baths she spends her days immersed in. After caring for her ailing mother, Miri, a hypochondriac, imagines herself “crowded with cysts, with cancer, growing an untreatable skin.” Yet in other moments, the flesh is a composite of minerals that are in — and of — elemental, geologic processes, from the lunar tones of teeth to the sodium, potassium, and calcium in our blood, combined in almost the same proportions as seawater. “The first things came from the sea, of course,” Leah explains, “so there’s always going to be a little trace of it in everything, a little trace of salt in the bones.”
This admixture, of course, goes both ways: the composition of the ocean is also made up, in some proportion, of bones too, specifically the bones of enslaved people who died on the ships of slave traders. While Armfield’s novel investigates the ways in which the grieving body is oceanic, Black feminist poets and authors like Lucille Clifton, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Christina Sharpe (to name just a few) remind us that the ocean is also a grieving body, as Clifton’s poem, “Atlantic Is a Sea of Bones,” attests in its title alone.
The experience of reading Armfield’s novel feels like a descent into deep water, a study in adapting to conditions of intensifying darkness and pressure. Indeed, the book is organized in five sections, each one corresponding to a different zone of the ocean’s depths: sunlight, twilight, midnight, abyssal, and hadal. The fish who live in the two deepest zones, whose names refer to bottomlessness and the Greek underworld, have adapted to deal with the pressure by having bodies composed of something like jelly. The deeper we go, be it in water or intimacy, the harder it is to hold our rigid shapes. Despite scattered moments of startling body horror, the book’s narrative movement is slow and often tonally detached, which has left some readers holding their breath for too long: Aida Edemariam, in a review for The Guardian, remarks that the novel felt “stretched slightly too thinly over the body of an idea, especially as there is also a lot of nothing much happening.”
But the novel’s glacial pace only worked, in my opinion, to attune readers even more subtly to the subtext beyond every laconic observation, the way that — in troubled intimacy especially — any calm surface might belie tumult churning just beyond what can be named. “I used to imagine the sea as something that seethed and then quieted, a froth of activity tapering down into the dark and still,” Miri observes. “I know now that this isn’t how it goes, that things beneath the surface are what have to move and change to cause the chain reaction higher up.” This is a novel primarily concerned with those things beneath the surface; just because we cannot see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
The ocean intrigues us for the same reasons love does: the challenge of knowing someone to their depths seduces us despite — or maybe because of — its seeming impossibility. Armfield’s work is an elliptical, leaky manual on how to live in the half-known life: the in-betweens of intimacy, the flux of not knowing, and the waves of surrealism that inundate the everyday. “[T]he deep sea might be dark,” as Leah reminds us, “but that doesn’t make it uninhabited.”
Zander Allport is a writer, teacher, and PhD student in Riverside, California.