Title: Our Wives Under the Sea
Writer: Julia Armfield
Publishing House: Picador
Date of Publication: March 3rd 2022
Rating: 5 stars
‘’The deep sea is a haunted house: a place in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness. Unstill, is the word Leah uses, tilting her head to the side as if in answer to some sound though the evening is quiet – dry hum of the road outside the window and little to draw the ear besides.’’
Miri’s world falls apart when her wife, Leah, seems to have been lost in a deep-sea mission that went awry. When the impossible happens and Leah returns, their life changes in a way that no one could have foreseen. Leah has become water. She is slowly turning into a nymph of the sea, an otherwordly creature whose condition cannot be clarified. The only thing that can sustain the facade of normality is love. But is love enough to save a life?
Following her superb collection Salt Slow, Julia Armfield’s debut novel is an ethereal, haunting, mystical masterpiece.
‘’I want to explain her in a way that would make you love her, but the problem with this is that loving is something we all do alone and through different sets of eyes.’’
Julia Armfield composes a shuttering elegy of love and grief, the sacrifices we are bound to make when we decide to share our life with the one we love, the compromises of the past, the hopes and fears that control the future. In a modern fable, in a contemporary folk tale of the sea and its mysteries, Leah and Miri struggle against the unpredictable current of Life. When the one you thought lost forever returns, when you see that they have become a shadow of themselves, when you find yourself ready to surrender to the inevitable, memories can give you strength. When you know that you would eventually give up everything to experience those magical moments of falling in love with someone all over again, then you have only one choice. To love. There is no alternative.
‘’I love going into the cinema when it’s still light and then coming out in the dark. Makes me think about the way a city is never the same. I mean, the way everything changes. Every night, every minute, it’s over and things will never be the same again.’’
Is there stability and certainty? Our lives can change within seconds. The dry land is as fluid as the sea, our daily course may seem mundane but are we keen on surprises? Are we fond of dreams in which nightmares have made their lairs? Julie Armfield poetically describes the fight of both women as Miri tries to stay afloat and Leah struggles to make sense of a world that is no longer known to her. Their thoughts and unique voices are portrayed to perfection, flawlessly communicated, so real, so familiar, so tangible.
‘’My heart is a thin thing, these days – shred of paper blown between the spaces in my ribs.’’
We will find references to Kon-Tiki and the Blood Eagle of the Nordic civilization. Mysticism and religious folklore with a particular focus on St Brendan, one of my favourite Irish saints, the seafarer who battled against monsters and demons. The myths of the tides, the voyages in the seven seas, the unbreakable and devious bond between the human and the ocean with its treasures and its dangers.
[‘’…and then one night he comes upon a man chained to a pillar of rock, in the middle of the sea – just there, just there in the ocean like this great, tall fang rising from the waves, this thing that shouldn’t be there, a man at the mercy of the elements. So St Brendan calls out to him and he learns that the man is Judas – Judas who gave Jesus up for dead – Judas, the failed apostle – and St Brendan learns that Judas is there because the way in which the Lord chooses to show him mercy is to free him from his torments, to free him from hell on Sundays and Holy Days, and cast him adrift on the ocean, where he can at least feel the wind on his face.’’
And carried by the waves and the wind are our regrets, our sorrow, our love and the things that were foolishly left unspoken…
This novel is destined to be one of the masterpieces of 2022.
‘’Ghosts don’t speak’’, she said to me. ‘’People misunderstand this. They think that when you’re haunted you hear someone speaking but you don’t. Or not usually. Most of the time, if you hear something speaking, it’s not a ghost – it’s something worse.’’
Many thanks to Picador and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.