Reading OWUS is like living on a pescatarian diet – far too much fish and not enough meat. I wanted so badly for Leah to grow a mermaid tail or reveal her time in that deeply boring submarine involved fighting off some kind of scaly predator. Instead, like the narrative, she dissolved into water.
On a particularly warm day in Manchester this April, I was shamelessly after any title I had saved from booktok when I came across a signed copy of Our Wives Under the Sea in the Queer Bookshop in Afflecks. I read half of it on my journey home, and despite only partial engagement didn’t seem able to put it down until the very end.
I was drawn to the promise of horror and an exploration of grief, and while the latter performed, the former was a little lacklustre; had I not read Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep just a few months ago, I might have enjoyed this more. As it was, I was already introduced to the world of sapphic mermaid terror and found that this title stopped short every time it came close to and semblance of the horror genre.
Instead, Grant explored the overdone sci-fi trope of big corporal surveillance and exploitation – and I hate sci-fi.
Once I had got to grips with the narrative, it became uncomfortably clear exactly what was going to happen and I believed then as I do now that this would have made an excellent short story, rather than a book brim-full of anecdotes that just didn’t feel necessary.
That being said, grief in literature is something I have always been drawn to; it’s a difficult process to convey, especially in the sense of apathy so many of us experience when we lose or partially lose, the people close to us. It’s something I thought only Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter did effectively, but Armfield’s attempt certainly had a lot to add to the conversation.
Unlike others, I enjoyed the dual perspective approach to the narrative and thought that giving each character a very similar voice highlighted the extremely close, often at times claustrophobic nature of their relationship.
Julia Armfield’s novel came out earlier this year and has an average rating of 4.09 stars on Goodreads. Booktok is similarly complimentary, which proved me right once again about believing the high praise of book vloggers online, no matter how many thousand likes the content has (how did I fall for it again after Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke?)
In all, this title gets a half-hearted three stars from me, who clings to the pay-off of a great novel about grief, but who wishes fewer publishers marketed books as ‘horror’ if they aren’t prepared to follow through.