These women and their underwater lair

Excerpt from Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

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This is an excerpt from the book Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield.

Have you ever heard of the Tektite habitat? This was an underwater laboratory and living station designed and built round about the late 1960s as a base from which to study marine life. Closely resembling a pair of connected grain silos, it sat at seabed level at Great Lameshur Bay and was used in preparation for NASA’s Apollo missions from early 1969, when the moon landing was just months away. In the main, NASA used the base to study the behavior and psychology of small crews living in extreme close quarters and the biomedical responses to long stretches spent in oxygen-controlled conditions, not unlike those of a spacecraft. Several teams were sent down to live for ten- or twenty-day stretches underwater, though my favorite among these has always been the team led by Sylvia Earle—a renowned biologist and explorer—which also happened to be the first all-female saturation dive team in history. I read about this in my father’s diving almanac and again in a book I once stole from his study called A Hundred and One Deep-Sea Dives of Note. In a team consisting of four scientists and one engineer, Earle’s crew spent two weeks underwater, documenting marine plant life while at the same time being studied themselves, both for their behavior in isolation and, in a frankly unavoidable way, for their choice of swimwear. They called us the aquababes, Earle said once, in an article I cut out and kept, the aquanaughties, all sorts of things. On emerging from the water, they were an immediate media sensation, with the focus squarely on their wet suits and bikinis and really the inescapable Bond girl–sexiness of the whole thing, of these women and their underwater lair.

Among the many things my father collected, he had a stash of old New Yorker magazines, dating back as far as 1972. He kept these in a series of old wine crates that he stacked in his garage and periodically allowed me to root through, I assume to get me out of his hair. I was thirteen when I found a copy from July 1989 that contained a profile of Sylvia Earle. Entitled “Her Deepness,” it was a detailed rundown of a long and wildly impressive life of deep-sea exploration, and I immediately whisked it away to read. One of my favorite parts of the article, the whole of which I read seven or eight times in the space of one weekend, was when Earle talked about the Tektite habitat, explaining that the Washington review committee in charge of selecting teams to man the station hadn’t actually expected women to apply at all. There were still some remarkably prudish attitudes in Washington in those days, she said, and the people in charge just couldn’t cope with the idea of men and women living together underwater. It was seemingly for this reason, really more than any desire to push the envelope, that the first female dive team was born. It makes sense when you think about it, my father said when I brought the article to him, actually a pretty neat solution to a problem. Really they should take this into account with space exploration, too. No chance of crewmates getting involved with each other when it’s all women—no distraction, no nookie, no silly buggers. Clever in its way.

I said nothing to this, although later on I lay and thought about these women, imagined myself a crewmate aboard the Tektite—the ghostly shoals of fish beyond the bubbled portholes, the tangled kelp, the stillness, the sudden scuds of light.

Now, on the floor of the main deck, I thought about this again, tried to remember the longest any team had submerged on the Tektite, the longest it was advisable to submerge.

“Do you smell it?” Jelka said, and I looked down at her, unsure of how long she had been awake.

Smell what?” Matteo said, though his expression did not match the question, as though he already knew the answer. It was the smell of something burning, of meat straight off the bone.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Our Wives Under the Sea – Summary

Miri thinks she has got her wife back, when Leah finally returns after a deep-sea mission that ended in catastrophe. It soon becomes clear, though, that Leah is not the same. Whatever happened in that vessel, whatever it was they were supposed to be studying before they were stranded on the ocean floor, Leah has brought part of it back with her, onto dry land and into their home.

Moving through something that only resembles normal life, Miri comes to realize that the life that they had before might be gone. Though Leah is still there, Miri can feel the woman she loves slipping from her grasp.

Our Wives Under The Sea is the debut novel from Julia Armfield, the critically acclaimed author of Salt Slow. It’s a story of falling in love, loss, grief, and what life there is in the deep deep sea.

Copyright © 2022 by Julia Armfield.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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