Our Wives Under the Sea: Loss, Grief & the Turbulent Tides of Change

The ocean is in my blood.  As a Bay Area native, my childhood consisted of building sand castles and eating funnel cakes at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.  Both my parents lived within minutes of the beach: my mother grew up swimming with sea turtles in Mililani, Hawaii; my father spent the majority of his childhood across the shimmering lights of the San Francisco Bay in Marin County.  Using only their wits, my Pacific Islander ancestors navigated the endless sea. 

Yet in the ocean, I’ve always felt ill at ease.  As a child, I viewed the sea as a mighty force that surged and seethed.  It was defined by violence: it raged, it ravaged, it crashed relentlessly against the beach.  I was never the best swimmer so I always worried the powerful tides would pull me under or even further out to sea.  

More terrifying than the waves are what lies beneath.  When you go in the ocean, you’re entering another realm, a watery world where you’re no longer at the top of the food chain.  Out of your element, you’re at a distinct disadvantage.  No matter how clear the water, it’s impossible to see more than a few feet.  Even when I swim close to shore, I feel acutely vulnerable, as if at any moment I’ll be ambushed by a tiger shark or gripped by a mysterious tentacle.  Whenever I go to Hawaii, I hate snorkeling in the coral reefs.  Most people love swimming in the tranquil waters among sea turtles and butterfly fish; I’m always terrified that some monstrous creature is going to emerge from the deep.  I recoil when the slimy fish touch me.

“Never turn your back on a wave,” my uncle would tell me.  For more than 30 years, he worked as a lifeguard at legendary Waimea Bay where ocean swells reaching shore sometimes crest and break at heights of 30 feet.  “Ever since Blue Crush, everyone thinks they can surf,” I remember his fellow lifeguard saying as we baked in the sweltering Hawaiian heat.  That summer, hundreds of wannabe surfers took their longboards into the surf with no conception of the danger.  Some died, underestimating the sea’s strength.  As a lifeguard, my uncle saw this sort of hubris everyday.  Better, he thought, to have a healthy fear of the sea.

No book has made me more fearful of the ocean than Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea.  The story alternates between the perspectives of two wives, Leah and Miri.  After Leah, a marine biologist, goes on a submarine mission and is lost at the bottom of the ocean, Miri must cope with the crushing weight of her absence.  When the two are eventually reunited six months later, Leah isn’t quite the same: she takes unimaginably long baths, has developed a thirst for salt water, and runs the water at all times of day.  So traumatized is she from her experiences that she appears disassociated from her surroundings and rarely speaks to Miri.

Our Wives Under the Sea is at once horrifying and heartbreaking.  Armfield expertly combines the haunted houses of the gothic genre with the disturbing physical transformations of body horror.  The ocean serves as the perfect (though oft overlooked) setting for a horror novel.  Though our planet is covered by water, scientists estimate that more than 80% of the ocean remains unexplored.  The sea is vast, mysterious, unknowable.  Tens of thousands of feet below the surface lies an entire underwater realm.  At a depth of a thousand meters, the ocean is plunged into impenetrable darkness.  Is it any wonder the sea has always been a source of fascination and fear, the submerged site of magical creatures like mermaids and otherworldly monsters?

Leah’s plight on a lost submarine plays on our primal fears: of the unknown, of the dark, of lack of air.  Her chapters suffuse the narrative with moments of page-turning suspense and nail-biting terror.  What we wonder— is lurking beneath the waves?  As film critic Zander Allport writes, “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.”

I read Our Wives Under the Sea in less than 3 days.  With each chapter, the mystery of what happened to Leah deepened: what did she encounter in the unfathomable, pitch-black depths of the sea?  did she see a giant squid, a prehistoric shark or some other equally terrifying ocean fiend?  who, exactly, is the Centre for Marine Enquiry?  why were Leah and her crew sent on this mission in the first place?  was the sinking of their submarine purely an accident or are they a part of some sort of sick experiment?  does the Centre have ulterior (perhaps sinister) motives?

Sadly, I didn’t find answers to most of these questions.  The one thing I hated about this book was it’s complete and total lack of resolution.  Can novels contain ambiguity?  Of course; in fact, many of the greatest books maintain a bit of mystery.  But as a reader who sacrificed much needed sleep expecting to unravel the mystery of what happened to Leah, I was bitterly disappointed.  I turned page after page hoping to finally pull the curtain on the Centre, the narrative’s main antagonist.  I wanted the book to culminate in a climactic scene where we finally saw the creature Leah encountered at the lightless depths of the ocean.  But instead, what happened in that submarine only lingers at the edges of the narrative.

But perhaps this was Armfield’s intention: much like the deep blue abyss of the ocean, the ones we love exist outside the bounds of our knowledge.  In the same way that Miri can never grasp her wife’s ghastly transformation, we can never fully understand the people in our lives: their hearts are as inaccessible as the Mariana Trench.  Our loved ones are like water: flowing, fluid, incapable of being confined to the rigid roles we create for them.  They might not mutate into marine monsters, but they will change.  Sometimes we drift apart like ships lost at sea.  When our relationship falls apart  like Leah and Miri’swe often can’t explain the change.    

Despite its flaws, Our Wives Under the Sea manages to be a moving meditation on grief.  Though Leah does return from her harrowing descent under the waves, she emerges as another person entirely and Miri must cope with an even more complicated form of grief.  Leah and Miri may be physically together, but they’re emotionally faraway, as distant as two islands separated by a seemingly impassable sea.  “It isn’t that her being back is difficult.  It’s that I’m not convinced she’s really back at all,” confesses Miri.

Deterioration and loss take many forms in the novel: Leah becomes a shell of her former self, Miri loses her mother to a degenerative disease.  No matter how much we love something, Armfield seems to suggest, it will inevitably slip away as surely as the shore disintegrates into the sea.  

Susan Sontag on the Bliss of Having Written & the Inextricable Connection Between Reading & Writing

What’s the secret to being a good writer?  Aspiring wordsmiths often think the answer is shrouded in mystery.  New Yorker staff writers and Pulitzer-prize winning novelists— they think— might possess this arcane knowledge but they keep it locked away like a buried treasure in a cave.  To access it, you have to know the magic words open sesame.  

But being a good writer is actually quite simple: you have to read.  

“Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river,” Virginia Woolf wrote as she contemplated the inseparable connection between reading and writing.  Ray Bradbury urged aspiring artists to devour as much material as possible: “If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful.  I have never had a dry spell in my life mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting” (Mr. Bradbury must be on to something…he wrote more than 30 books and nearly 600 short stories).  Stephen King put it more simply, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Towering intellect and titan of criticism Susan Sontag would have to agree.  In her distinctively discerning essay “Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite, Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed,” one of many thought-provoking pieces in the New York Times Writers on WritingSontag makes the convincing argument that you can’t write unless you read.  We usually think of the writing process as a series of predictable steps we learned in 3rd grade: brainstorm, outline, draft, revise, edit.  However, this formula neglects a fundamental stage: reading.  Reading is integral to revising: we must first become master readers before we can assess what’s working and what’s not working in our own writing.  As Sontag writes with characteristic acuity: 

“…to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.  You write in order to read what you’ve written and see if it’s OK and, since of course it never is, to rewrite it— once, twice, as many times as it takes to get it to be something you can bear to reread…Hard to imagine writing without rereading.”  

Every week in my writing workshop class, we have to critique our classmates.  At first, I resented the exercise: helping others revise their work kept me from my own writing (after all, I only have so many hours in a day).  But now I realize that assessing others sharpens my critical faculties.  If I can comprehend why another person’s story isn’t working (their central message is unclear, their characters are cardboard cutouts instead of three-dimensional people, their writing is clunky), I can apply those lessons to my own writing.  In the same way, when one of my classmate’s stories is working, it inspires me.  Nothing rekindles my creative fire quite like encountering an evocative bit of imagery or a sharp turn-of-phrase.  

Ultimately, reading ignites writing.  Reading a good book can electrify us with an ecstatic lightening bolt of inspiration and send our fingers flying.  But if we read too much, we might compare our not-yet-developed first drafts to the masterpieces of literary giants and find ourselves wanting.  No writer is safe from the torture chamber of comparison.  Though Virginia Woolf was certainly a genius in her own right, she found herself overcome by crippling writer’s block any time she read Marcel Proust.  “Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence,” she wrote in 1922.

In an incisive passage, Sontag captures this complex relationship between reading and writing:

“Reading usually precedes writing.  And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading.  Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer.  And long after you’ve become a writer, reading books others write— and rereading the beloved books of the past— constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing.  Distraction.  Consolation.  Torment.  And, yes, inspiration.”

“I hate writing, I love having written,” lady of wisecracks Dorothy Parker famously quipped.  You’d be hard pressed to find a writer who didn’t agree with this sentiment.  The act of writing is often agony and anguish.  There’s nothing more formidable than facing the blank page’s daunting nothingness.

But if writing is torment, revision is bliss.  The first stages of writing are like the first stages of gardening.  There’s a lot of difficult decisions, not to mention drudgery: you have to choose the proper plot of land and the kinds of flowers you want to grow, you have to till the soil.  But once your seeds are planted and begin to bloom, most of your work is maintenance: you water, you pull weeds, you prune.

Once you have a first draft, you’ve arranged your thoughts into some sort of logical order.  You’ve accomplished the most difficult task: assembling your ideas into a coherent form so they can be transported into someone else’s consciousness.

“Having written” is the less laborious, more fun part of the writing process.  Once you’ve overcome the paralysis of beginning and gotten something, anything, down on the page, you can commit yourself to the more pleasurable work of revising.  Revising is weeding out unnecessary repetition and awkward phrasing, cutting away overgrown bushes of syntax so your reader can more readily understand your thinking.  Revising is replacing recycled ideas and commonplace cliches with fresh turns-of-phrase.  It’s replacing close-but-not-quite-right-words with more precise words that exactly convey your meaning.  Refining your work is endlessly satisfying.  As Sontag writes, 

“…though this, the rewriting— and the rereading— sound like effort, they are actually the most pleasurable parts of writing.  Sometimes the only pleasurable parts.  Setting out to write, if you have the idea of ‘literature’ in your head, is formidable, intimidating.  A plunge in an icy lake.  Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade.


Let’s say, it’s a mess.  But you have a chance to fix it.  You try to be clearer.  Or deeper.  Or more eloquent.  Or more eccentric.  You try to be true to the world.  You want the book to be more spacious, more authoritative…As the statue is entombed in the block of marble, the novel is inside your head.  You try to liberate it.  You try to get this wretched stuff on the page closer to what you think your book should be— what you know, in your spasms of elation, it can be.”