I’m getting most of my reading done via audiobooks at the moment, which is a massive change for me. Over the past year I’ve learned to absorb new reads as well as rereads and I’m long overdue some reviews, so today I’m focusing on two debut novels about women, love, and the siren song of the sea.
I was obsessed with these two books long before they came out – enticing blurbs and stunning cover art made them irresistible in spite of the fact that they inhabit the often uneasy overlap of speculative fiction and literature, territory I am typically very, very wary of. I’m excited for authors with genre sensibilities to flex literary muscles; I’m not excited to read literary authors who think they’ve reinvented the genre novel. Thankfully, these books are arresting and unsettling in a good way, weaving speculative elements into searing personal stories beautiful if never easy reading: Our Wives Under The Sea is primarily a tale of love with a side of body horror and The Seawomen is a patriarchal nightmare obsessed with merfolk.
Our Wives Under The Sea – Julia Armfield
This poetic, unsettling tale of love and loss is told through the twin narratives of two women: Leah, a marine biologist whose submersible craft malfunctions and traps her on the ocean floor; and her wife Miri, endlessly waiting for her wife to return. Leah’s chapters are flashbacks that never quite explain what happened, while Miri’s explore the before – how they met, how they loved – and after, as she tries to engage with the changed Leah who does eventually return home from the sea.
I spent most of the book wondering whether to take Our Wives Under The Sea literally; it works as exquisitely told body horror or as a metaphor for grief and acceptance. Armfield captures the arc of Miri’s grief followed by her rage at Leah’s baffling, hurtful withdrawal as her odd condition progresses. It is lyrical and slow, unpacking layers of guilt and regret and love and joy. I’m glad I listened to it, the narration making it (even) more intimate and (I suspect) giving me more patience and empathy for Miri than I might have had in print. I recommend it for those looking for an otherworldly literary read, although those who like clear-cut explanations may wish to avoid; this is about the emotional journey, the deep sea keeps its secrets.
Content warning: degenerative illness, death of parent, body horror
On a cold, wet, northern island, a small community has cut itself off from the sinners of the mainland to steep itself in regressive religious practices. Rising seas and strange evolutions are proof that humanity has lost its way; the way back to God will be found through obedience and strictly enforced gender roles. Those who stray are said to have been seduced by the seawomen, alluring merfolk who teach women dark arts that damn men’s souls; with no greater proof of damnation than the failure to produce a blessed child.
I admit to being concerned that The Seawomen would be a soggier Handmaid’s Tale, and I’m happy to say that it transcends it. Timms captures the claustrophobia of a small community with only one way out: untethering – execution by drowning – which is where the story starts. Esta’s parents died in a fire when she was a baby (the first black mark against her – God only permits bad things to happen to those who deserve it) and her grandmother is intent on ensuring she grows up clean and godly. But in spite of the community’s incessant efforts to control its women, Esta is drawn to the sea (uh oh), longing for more than she finds in her loveless home.
We see the island and its beliefs through her eyes as she grows up: fearful and obedient as a young child, terror increasing with a bitter awareness of her fate as a teenager, resigned but unbowed as a young woman. She is always reaching, ever dreaming, and her often dubious choices made my heart surge with her curiosity and resilience and reckless hope. This is a community where a family can be ruined by teenage boys assaulting their daughter – her fault, naturally – and where a young woman has a year to prove her purity by bearing a child, or be untethered. Every aspect of Esta’s life is controlled; the island women trained to be complicit in their humiliations.
The Seawomen is a novel that makes you long to drown the patriarchy and swim with the seawomen, that sings to us to embrace the Other (scales and all) rather than allowing ourselves to be controlled by our fear of it. It never doubts that those in power abuse their position to maintain their influence, and that blind belief is easily manipulated. Yet for all the horrors it depicts – from the domestic to the societal – it is unexpectedly uplifting.
Clearly a tragedy on rails, this is exactly the sort of narrative I’ve been assiduously avoiding given the state and direction of the world, but Chloe Timms and narrator Samara MacLaren reeled me into Esta’s story. I think narration enhanced the reading experience for me, giving Esta the voice the island would silence. Expect an ambiguous and unexpectedly cathartic ending, which helped me make peace with everything that had preceded it.
Content warnings: death of parents, sexual assault, misogyny, xenophobia, bullying, dementia, drowning, torture