cover image Our Wives Under the Sea

Our Wives Under the Sea

Julia Armfield. Flatiron, $26.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-250-22989-2

Armfield follows her collection, Salt Slow, with a moody and intimate debut novel, both a portrait of a marriage and a subtle horror fantasy. Miri and Leah are a married lesbian couple living in a British coastal city. Leah, a scientist with the Centre for Marine Enquiry, participates with her submarine crew in a deep-sea dive that is supposed to take three weeks but instead lasts six months, due to a malfunction, and Miri’s reactions range from helpless panic to anger to acceptance and mourning as she phones desperately to get answers from the Centre. (She even joins an online community of role-playing women who imagine their husbands are astronauts in space.) When Leah returns, she begins exhibiting such symptoms as the “silvering” of her skin, sleepwalking, loss of appetite, and a need to be near or in water. She also spends hours in the bathroom with the taps running and a sound machine playing ocean surf sounds, and bleeds frequently: from her nose, gums, and through her skin. While Miri at first looks for a logical explanation for these maladies, their source remains mysterious. Meanwhile, the two have stopped communicating and sleep in separate bedrooms, and it begins to seem as if Leah is transforming into some nonhuman creature. With echoes of Jules Verne, Thor Heyerdahl (whose work inspired Leah), H.P. Lovecraft, and the film Altered States, Armfield anchors the shudder-producing tale in authentic marine science and a deep understanding of human nature. This is mesmerizing. (July)