Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield Review
66,000 words, 240 pages, 6 hrs and 7 mins to read
Published by Picador
3.84 out of 5 on Goodreads
Our Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Our Wives Under the Sea is the debut novel by British author Julia Armfield. It follows the alternating stories of a couple, Miri and Leah, who are recovering from a traumatic experience Leah went through during an underseas expedition gone wrong. It deals with love, loss and letting go in a mood and prose heavy story that I was close to stopping reading but ultimately was glad I finished.
What’s Bad About Our Wives Under the Sea?
As with many of our reviews we like to start with things we didn’t like. Each chapter follows one of the main characters. First Miri, then Leah and so on. This started as quite a nice technique to get both perspectives, to get a look at the present and the past as we would follow Leah in the submarine on the past underwater expedition. Then we would follow Miri in the present, dealing with the fallout of what went wrong. But what I found was that the chapters would then be broken down into random sections that would take place all over the timeline of the entire story with very little cohesion or structure, it just felt like following the character’s mind darting to random thoughts as they appeared instead of a story that was actually going somewhere somewhat orderly. Maybe this was the point, to add to the confusion and mirror the discomfort of the characters, but ultimately I found the constant switching of time to be simply jarring and difficult to follow. This got a little better towards the end but by then the damage had been done and I’d read three quarters of the book with very little satisfaction.
To add to this, I sometimes felt like the writing was quite, dare I say, pretentious. I got flashbacks to University where I had painful conversations with a philosophy student who had recently discovered Plato and decided that it was their life’s work to make knowing Plato their entire personality. This sometimes felt like that. Like, I get it, you’re intelligent and well read and you do write well, but please let’s just get back to the morbid underwater horror story as I just no longer care about your friends’ port-cooked mushrooms or that you’ve read Das Kapital. The combination of these two left me with a pretty sour taste in my mouth as it’s this kind of writing that I simply don’t enjoy and most of the book fell into these traps. But there was some good, as follows.
The thing about losing someone isn’t the loss but the absence of afterwards. D’you know what I mean? The endlessness of that.
― Julia Armfield, Our Wives Under the Sea
What’s Good About Our Wives Under the Sea?
The most interesting parts of this book were undoubtedly when it actually focused on the ill-fated underwater mission that Leah went on and then the direct consequences of this. I enjoyed reading the strange things that happened to her when she got back home and sometimes these made me feel very uncomfortable. Hearing about her skin bleeding or her vomiting sea water (and more intense things later that I won’t spoil) was a great level of discomfort and intrigue that was ultimately the only thing that kept me going.
Furthermore (and despite mentioning the writing in what I didn’t enjoy), the actual prose flowed well and there were some really great quotes and many moments that I stopped and took a moment to appreciate what I was reading. The characters were well developed and deep in some ways. They felt like they could be real people and there were enough little tidbits of information and small snippets of back story that left me pretty satisfied with them from a developmental point of view. It’s just that I didn’t care in the slightest about them and instead found them all ultimately to be quite insufferable. For me, the story was carried by the concepts of which there was far too little emphasis.
Ultimately, I don’t think I was the target audience of this book. Not because of the main characters, but just because I need more substance to my stories, especially when one of the main parts of it is underwater horror, which is right up my street. I really wanted to love it. The premise felt unique and refreshing with a double point of view that I was hoping could give an interesting look at a relationship with a fairly unusual elephant in the room. In addition to this, having an absorbing mystery and an expectation of unsettling excitement from the underwater scenes, I was really excited to read it but quickly lost interest.
I did start to warm to the story more in the final third. I think at this point the mystery starts to heighten, lots of weird, and sometimes quite disturbing, things start to happen, and it finally gave me more of what I was hoping for. When it was good, it was enjoyable and mostly well done. I think where the story leads and the themes of loss and letting go were handled well and I really enjoyed the ending. But there just wasn’t enough of the good throughout to keep me engaged. I was very close to stopping reading multiple times as there just wasn’t enough happening, the writing (despite being good) was erratic and pretentious and the characters were just not my cup of tea.