Horror in the Mundane
Louise Seager discusses Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea
“I used to think there was such a thing as emptiness, that there were places in the world one could go and be alone. This, I think, is still true, but the error in my reasoning was to assume that alone was somewhere you could go, rather than somewhere you had to be left.”
Even though the better part of this year has been a readjustment to life as it used to be, it still comes as a shock whenever events don’t get cancelled. Things that used to feel normal, like being surrounded by a crowd of people at a concert or walking into a classroom to see a group of people without masks, now feel daunting. Masks are no longer mandatory on public transport. The MCG boasted the largest crowd in over half a decade. All positive developments, so why does something feel wrong about it?
Leaving the house without a mask, being viewed by others without the luxury of the barrier of a screen that I can control, leaves me feeling exposed and nervous. Spending a day in the city still causes exhaustion and fatigue, even after months of readjusting. In many ways, I feel like a different person returning to a life I don’t quite recognise. Many friends have reflected on these same feelings, something hasn’t entirely clicked back, and it still feels like we’re waiting for more to happen, to interrupt. Perhaps this is why reading Our Wives Under the Sea, featuring characters who, in many ways, refuse to readjust, or adjust, to their lives, feels so refreshing.
Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea could be categorised as a horror novel, a love story, a mystery, a modern gothic, or anything in between. In dual perspectives, it follows Miri and Leah. Through Miri, we learn that her wife, Leah, has recently returned from a submarine expedition that was delayed six months, during which Miri knew nothing of the events unwinding. All she knows is that the Leah who has returned to her is entirely unlike with the woman she married. Leah’s chapters slowly reveal the journal she kept during her botched expedition, like unveiling a mystery. The novel’s sections mirror the layers of the ocean: the sunlight zone, the twilight zone, the midnight zone, the abyssal zone, and, finally, the hadal zone, where human life cannot survive. The effect is an unwinding, as the reader is slowly submerged deeper into the suffocating and constricting horror faced by Armfield’s characters.
I was hesitant to pick up a novel that dealt so closely with captivity, even one far removed from the reality of lockdowns. However, Armfield’s hypnotising writing pulled me in, and I soon realised that as much as this is a horror novel, it is also a haunting love story. Traces of gothic literature reveal themselves in the spaces occupied by Armfield’s characters, in Leah’s submarine, and in Miri and Leah’s shared apartment, which both transform into entrapments of terror. The new hostility of Leah and Miri’s apartment, and to some extent their marriage, is magnified by Miri’s memories of how things used to be. However, even as Leah is changing and transforming, Miri expresses her need “to explain her [Leah] 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.”
The horror of Our Wives Under the Sea, although sometimes drawing on the tropes of strange smells and changing bodies, is largely a result of fear of the unknown. While this might appear as fear of the ocean, or sickness, or insanity, it is manifested mainly in the mundane. The ocean perhaps best exemplifies this, being at once the site of Leah’s trauma and transformation. It is also the location of ordinary happy memories of Leah’s childhood and of Leah teaching Miri to swim. There may be something greater lurking beneath its surface, something unknowable, but simultaneously it is safe and entirely accessible.
On writing her novel, Armfield expressed: “I was interested in … how the dailiness of everything would continue to assert itself over everything else that was going on.” Even as Leah’s body quite literally begins to dissolve, the couple attempts marriage counselling. Miri spends hours on the phone to try to get answers, and sets up a TV in their bathroom so that Leah can watch her favourite movies without having to leave the bath. For us, this sentiment is perhaps most familiar through lockdowns, but the same could be said of any traumatic situation. Life simply refuses to stop moving; you still need to clean, pay bills, cook – even when your world fundamentally alters. Even through the unimaginable, life continues to creep through, somehow.
Even when trapped at the bottom of the ocean, Leah continues to collect stories for Miri, just as she would in her day-to-day life. She reflects: “In my head, I think I’m often telling Miri stories, logging away information or things I’ve seen in order to tell her about them later.” Life continues. Relationships continue, even if one person is not physically present. This, I think, is one of the most remarkable ways Armfield represents grief. The grief of losing someone you love and missing them, but also of losing yourself, of losing a part of your life. Miri’s grief is, perhaps, the most obvious, as she struggles with not just the loss of Leah, but “the absence of afterwards … The endlessness of that”, the holes and empty spaces. Leah’s grief weaves a more subtle thread, having lost half a year of her life, and returning fundamentally altered and physically unable to take up things as they were.
For many, the past two years have raised these variations of grief. Perhaps that is why returning to reality now, although exciting and wonderful, also raises trepidation. Perhaps, with time, we will adjust to the mundane.