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’s— we 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.