Title: The Octopus and I
Author: Erin Hortle
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 15th April 2020
Synopsis: A stunning debut novel set on the Tasmanian coast that lays bare the wild, beating heart at the intersection of human and animal, love and loss, and fear and hope.
Lucy and Jem live on the Tasman Peninsula near Eaglehawk Neck, where Lucy is recovering from major surgery. As she tries to navigate her new body through the world, she develops a deep fascination with the local octopuses, and in doing so finds herself drawn towards the friendship of an old woman and her son. As the story unfolds, the octopuses come to shape Lucy’s body and her sense of self in ways even she can’t quite understand.
The Octopus and I is a stunning debut novel that explores the wild, beating heart at the intersection of human and animal, love and loss, fear and hope.
The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle is a debt novel, moving between the human perspective – Lucy, told in first person at times, and also in third person, but also the animal perspective, some of which appear in third person and it felt like some were in third person. Each chapter is unnumbered and untitled, but easily delineated with clear places for readers to stop where they need to. Set in coastal Tasmania, there is an ebb and flow of the sea and the environment, the clashes of man and beast, and ideological clashes that on the surface, are said to be different by those who hold the beliefs, yet if you dig a little deeper, there are similarities that allow for each side as it were to somewhat converge at some point, even though they believe that they are not the same.
This is a strange yet lyrical book, and weaves in and out of nature and the human world, and the human world’s relationship with nature, seen through Lucy’s obsession with the octopus she saves one night, and her decision to immortalise it in a tattoo, and to find out everything she can about them, fuelling her fascination with the creatures.
Lucy’s journey is seen through the ideology of breasts and body image – and the way some people define a woman by her breasts. Lucy’s breast implants following surgery for breast cancer attract a lot of unwanted attention. So when an accident forces her to re-evaluate how she sees her body, Lucy’s obsession and fascination with the local wildlife, and in particular, the octopus becomes clear – a fascination that leads her to save them when she sees one in danger, and feel more at ease in the ocean than she does on land at times.
I wondered if the octopus, specifically the female octopus and her life cycle, was a metaphor for Lucy and her breast cancer, and how she was trying to understand her identity without her breasts. If so, it was done in a way that wasn’t overtly obvious, so that the reader has to dig for it like a treasure hunt, which is why I am glad I read to the end of the book and uncovered Lucy’s journey of body image, and her relationship to Jem, to Harry and to Flo, but also her relationship to the natural landscape and the animals of Tasmania. Those perspectives are dotted throughout, and present the reader with a different, yet well-rounded idea of how human and animal engage with the earth, even if, albeit, it does feel like a shock when you’ve been reading Lucy’s story for so long, and the seal or another sea creature appears. Though it doesn’t take along to readjust, as Erin has clearly signposted where each part begins and how each perspective begins for the reader to interact effectively.
The things that human and animal have in common that are present in the novel, and that effectively link each different perspective include love, loss, hope, and fear – feelings present in each character within this novel manifesting themselves in different ways.
It is to me, an experiment in how to interact with the world around you and the unknowns in life that come along when we least expect them to. It is a book that is equal parts strange, moving and intriguing, that knows when to hold back, and when to reveal secrets and plot points, and allows the reader to almost swim through the words. It has a clear focus on the connection of human and animal to nature, and what this can mean for different people.
It is a book that needs time spent with it – to fully understand and appreciate what is happening, so that the reader can immerse themselves in the world Lucy finds herself in. At times it felt a little more conceptual, but this worked for the novel, and it will work for those who enjoy something a little out of the ordinary, that allows the reader to explore a sense of self in a very different way.