The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

This is a stunning debut novel by an Australian author.  From the first sentence of the book: ‘My body is brimming is pulsing is purring is ready’ [3], the narrative engages the reader and never lets go.  The quoted sentence is voiced – although that may not be exactly the right word to use in this context – by an octopus which is crossing a road to get to deeper water on the other side of an isthmus to lay its eggs.

Later in the novel, the consequence of this dangerous journey and the octopus’s subsequent connection with the protagonist of the story – Lucy – is described in chilling detail.

The Octopus and I is an engrossing and multi-faceted story which has at its heart relationships – between people and the natural world, between sea creatures and each other, between women, and, most importantly for the novel, between one man and one woman: Lucy and her partner Jem.  Along the way, the novel also deconstructs toxic masculinity and the influence fathers, by the articulation of their values through their behaviour, may have on their sons.  With one father and his son in particular, this has tragic consequences and, indirectly, damages a significant relationship beyond redemption.

However, all that is ahead of the reader as he/she moves through the narrative which on occasion has a touch of magical realism about it.

The novel is divided into three parts – each part begins with a chapter voiced in turn by the female octopus, a male seal half-pup, the octopus again – and the novel concludes with the voice of a female seal half-pup who is now pregnant for the first time. The male seal pup is ‘a cocky beta-half-pup’ who intrudes into the territory of an alpha male seal.  In response to the intrusion, the alpha male ‘rams into the little male seal and tosses him into the swirling kelp that fringes the rocks’ [78].  This vignette is echoed in the human world in the attempts made by a young boy to emulate his father.

The story takes place in Eaglehawk Neck – a real place in south-eastern Tasmania near Port Arthur – and there is an isthmus also called Eaglehawk Neck.  Lucy is a city girl from Melbourne who is entranced by what she believes to be a more natural way of living and moves in with Jem an abalone fisherman who has a strong ecological bent.  By chance one evening, Lucy comes across Flo and Poppy – long-time friends who are catching octopuses for pickling.  Lucy is mesmerised by their actions and catches sight of Flo’s knife as she cuts an octopus.  Lucy says ‘That timeless glimmer of pearly light on steel was enough for me … to endow the scene with a cultural solemnity far beyond what it deserved.  This has played out before, I thought’ [49].  Lucy immediately wants to ‘immerse herself in that raw, feminine culture’ [50].

Thus begins a deep friendship between two women – one thirty years older than the other – but a friendship which somehow acknowledges the deep immutable bond of ‘femaleness’.  A bond echoed in the connection between Lucy and the octopus which has a significance explicated only later as the story proceeds.

However, the key relationship is the one between Lucy and Jem.  Lucy has recently had a double mastectomy and consequently had artificial breasts and, as Lucy says of Jem’s response to them: ‘his gaze made a performer of me and a costume of my breasts’ [29].  This incident allows the author to explore the significance for males of female sexual attributes and, in spite of Jem’s protestations to the contrary, their importance in his sexual response to Lucy.  Following an accident – the circumstances of which are better left to the reader to discover – Lucy’s artificial breasts are removed and she chooses not to replace them.  It is brilliant writing on the part of the author to describe so accurately Jem’s attempts to hide his disappointment at Lucy’s decision while at the same trying to reassure her that he will continue to love her.  Jem says: ‘I’ll support you no matter what, but are you sure you want to go the rest of your life without them at all? [101].

With a sense of inevitability, the novel proceeds to its conclusion – but without any sense of cliché or artifice.  What occurs in the narrative is always consistent with the way men and women think and act in distressing circumstances.  The reader never feels that s/he is being emotionally manipulated; and there is a rawness in some of the scenes which demonstrate honest and skilful writing of the best kind. 

Towards the end of the novel, there is a tragic accident – with serious consequences for others beyond those who were directly involved – which is described in excruciating detail where the reader is, with heart in mouth, almost seeing the accident unfold step by step.  The writing conveys such a sense of immediacy that the reader feels that s/he should step in and assist the victim.

This is a book which engages the reader from beginning to end.  All the characters – even those who are perhaps less sympathetic than others – are genuine and alive.  It is a book well worth the reading.

Erin Hortle is a writer based in Tasmania.  She has published short fiction and essays in a number of Australian publications.  Her writing explores the ways in which experimental approaches to writing may facilitate new ways of imagining humans’ relationships with the non-human world – with a distinctly feminist bent.

The Octopus and I

[2020]

by Erin Hortle

Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 1 76087 564 0

355pp; $29.99

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