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Our Wives Under the Sea: A Gothic Romance

Julia Armfield's Our Wives Under the Sea is a wonderfully clever and well-crafted Gothic romance tailored for a contemporary audience. It tells the stories of wives Miri and Leah when Leah's three-week research excursion upon a submarine turns into a six-month absence with no explanation and no communication. As time continues Miri slowly comes to believe Leah is gone forever, and begins to grieve; trapped on the bottom of the ocean in a craft that won't respond to their commands, Leah waits for death.

When Miri receives a call from Leah's employer telling her Leah has been released from quarantine and can return home, Miri is gobsmacked; she was never informed of Leah's return. And when she brings her wife home Miri is even more unsettled as she grapples with her memory of the woman she married versus the drastically different woman who spends most of her days soaking in a cool bathtub.

Oh, what an absolute treat. This creeping story of parallel isolation, grief, and loss is a wonderful slow burn. It maintains a purposeful withholding through the end, resisting temptations to expound or neatly tie up in favor of preserving the confused horror of the whole, and it is so strong for it.

Miri's horror is of the real and the mundane; unfortunate circumstances lead to the loss of her wife, and she's left processing grief and loneliness and regret. She has to navigate social situations, and she remembers the death of her mother. She battles her hypochondria and reminisces about her courtship with Leah. And when her wife returns, Miri flounders; she's unable to process or adapt to the extraordinary turn of events Leah's homecoming brings.

Leah's story is of the extraordinary. A marine biologist, she is employed on a research excursion by The Centre. On their descent the submarine looses communication and power, and she and her two crew mates find themselves trapped on the bottom of the ocean in total darkness. Inexplicably, their air scrubbers continue to work, they have an inexhaustible supply of fresh water, and provisions for several months. They grow suspicious, they hear voices, they panic, they lose all sense of time. One commits suicide, and the remaining two are faced with an extraordinary sea creature whose giant eye takes the brunt of descriptive attempts. And then their submarine suddenly regains power.

That the trip is a ruse on the part of the Centre is clear, but little else is - and it's delicious. My working theory is that the Centre is a cult-like organization who has come to revere this Cthulhu-like sea creature, but I'm not certain of much - least of all why and how Leah comes to dissolve into a deep-sea creature herself. And I'm glad for the preservation of gothic mystery.

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