Sharp and distinctive first novel

Book title:
Our women under the sea

ISBN-13:
9781529017236

Author:
Julia Armfield

Editor:
Picador

Guide price:
£16.99

I haven’t stopped dreaming of Our Women Under the Sea since I finished it. The award-winning author of short story collection Salt Slow tells the story of two wives, one of whom has just returned from a mission on the high seas gone wrong. Taking up some of her previous concerns (liminal spaces, the proximity between the body and nature, death), Julie Armfield’s first novel is sharp, atmospheric, dryly funny, sad, distinctive. If it doesn’t appear on many charts, I’ll eat my hat.

What is the book about? A failed relationship, perhaps. These women – Miri and Leah – love each other, but since Leah’s return, silence has crept “like a backbone” into their life together. Leah is like a shocked war veteran. She rarely eats and is constantly in the bath listening to a sound machine. Miri, not knowing what to do, spends hours on the phone trying in vain to reach Leah’s former employer.

It could be a book about the sea, about depression, illness, grief. It is organized into five sections, each corresponding to an ocean layer

Gothic elements are knitted throughout (“The deep sea is a haunted house: a place where things that shouldn’t be move in the dark” goes the tantalizing first sentence). Everything that happens on the surface has a symbolic and metaphorical meaning underneath. Take Leah’s observation that “things can thrive under unimaginable conditions. All they need is the right type of skin. It seems to refer to sea creatures, but the choice of word allows for a much broader meaning.

This mode of expression is omnipresent everywhere. Prose is looking for something, but what? It could be a book about the sea, about depression, illness, grief. It is organized into five sections, each corresponding to an ocean layer (Sunlight Zone, Twilight Zone, Midnight Zone, Abyssal Zone, Hadal Zone). We follow the trajectory down, down, down.

There are ecological undertones – one thinks of rising tides, even if the climate crisis is not explicitly mentioned. Facts abound (“almost everything you imagine when you imagine a jellyfish is actually just water”), as if we were reading an unexpectedly moving textbook. We gather information, but there is also the understanding that we can never “know enough to escape the panic of not knowing”.

Indeed, if the writing is of an implacable requirement, Our Wives Under the Sea tends towards the unknowable, which can also be synonymous with death or strangeness. There is an almost spiritual infinity in his quest. Like all good novels, it goes deep, and then deeper.

Irene B. Bowles