THE WASHINGTON POST – Lovers drift apart.
Nothing more ordinary. But this shared history of misfortune is shocking in Julia Armfield’s debut novel, Our women under the sea.
The very first line of his wildly whimsical story warns us to expect the unexpected: “The deep sea is a haunted house,” Armfield writes, “a place in which things that shouldn’t be move in the dark “.
And yet, even this gothic omen can’t prepare us for what lies beneath the surface of this strange romance.
In a sense, the plot is simple, even boldly static.
Two young women are stuck in their apartment, where they will remain almost until the end of the novel.
Leah works as a marine biologist and Miri writes grant applications, but their normal lives have been put on hold entirely.
When the novel opens, Miri is tending to Leah, who has just returned from a disaster on the high seas.
We learn that a three-week search mission went horribly wrong and lasted more than six crushing months of hope before she was unexpectedly rescued.
During this period of worry and arrested grief, Miri fantasized about joining a support group for people with missing spouses: “Wife Under the Sea? Here is the number to call.
But in practice, Miri did nothing but ruminate, despair, and resent the joyful continuation of the world.
Now, as Leah recovers, Miri is forced to call and redial the mission administrator to find out exactly what happened to his weakened wife at the bottom of the ocean.
She waits endlessly on hold, gets cut – rinse, repeat. With her often painful poetic style, Miri admits, “My heart is a thin thing these days – a blown-out shred of paper between the gaps in my ribs.”
Our women under the sea presents itself as a series of short chapters told alternately by these two lovers.
For Miri, the act of breastfeeding elicits deep feelings of hypochondria and dread, heightening the grief she still feels over the loss of her mother.
But what troubles her even more is the growing sense of separation from Leah.
“I found myself trying to escape this new lack between us,” Miri confessed, “become self-aware of my race, hours spent in the supermarket, needlessly deliberating over brands of detergent, scrutinizing pots of yogurt and butter and butter substitute Occasionally I tell Leah that I am leaving the apartment to complete a specific activity and instead I simply walk to a fixed point and stay there until I bored me enough to come back.
This reference to boredom gives an indication of the problems in this relationship – and the risks Armfield’s meditative story takes. After all, this is a novel in which one of the narrators said, “For a long time nothing happened,” and she means it.
Little movement here in the fetid atmosphere which oscillates between convalescence and the hospice.
But Armfield has an exquisite, even sadistic sense of suspense. She cleverly crafted this story so that we only gradually become aware of how little we know.
There’s more than a drop of The turn of the screw in these pages – a fungal terror that spreads in sustained blur. Each of Miri’s chapters brings new and alarming details about Leah’s symptoms.
We know she was released and sent home with nothing but a white noise machine, a pair of decompression socks and a book of aphorisms, but Miri senses something more complicated has gone wrong. produced and continues to happen to her spouse.
It’s not just Leah’s chronic fatigue; she is bleeding from the gums and her skin has taken on a particular glow.
“She’s silver,” Miri said, “oystery at the creases of her elbows and around her neck.”
Increasingly taciturn, distant and angry, Léa spends so much time in the bathtub that their water bill explodes.
“It’s not that her return is difficult,” Miri said, “it’s that I’m not convinced that she’s really back.” And with that, almost imperceptibly, the story slips from a love story to a Lovecraft story.
Meanwhile, in Leah’s chapters, the details of this disastrous mission on the high seas begin to pile up, crisp and beautiful as coral polyps. “It’s actually very rare for a submarine to sink,” Leah reassured us.
But that’s exactly what happened early in his mission when the ship’s electrical system partially shut down.
“Our ship suddenly seemed less of a precision engineered piece and more of a fast-sinking box,” she said.
For months, she and her two colleagues rested on the ocean floor under millions of tons of water, staring into the darkness. “Neither of us commented on the weirdness of the situation, how a routine search dive so quickly turned into this,” Leah said.
“We were on board the only ship capable of diving to such depth” – well below the habitat of even the aptly named monsters of the ocean: the vampire squid, the zombie worm, the cosmic jellyfish.
And yet, in this lifeless hadal zone, the crew members heard something trying to force its way into the submarine. Or had they just gone mad?
Somehow, the pressure Leah was under six miles below the surface of the ocean matches the pressure Miri is under in their apartment. Just merge the story of a dying love with a gothic horror tale.
“Panic is a misuse of oxygen,” Leah warned, but by the climax of this weird romance, I was abusing it with abandon.