Book review: The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

When you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, there are a million different things (or it feels like that, anyway) that you have to deal with, usually in a very short amount of time.

What’s my prognosis? Are my options plentiful or not? Should I undergo chemotherapy or radiation or both? And how will I handle all the consequential stuff that results from what is by measure a turbulent period in your life.

All big important medical questions that need to be addressed but what about your sense of self throughout it all? That has to take a battering, especially since a career diagnosis and all the resulting fallout cuts right to the very heart of who you are.

It is a poignantly pertinent question that is understanding with understanding, empathy and not a little bit of drama in Erin Hortle’s wholly wonderful, vividly affecting and charming novel The Octopus and I.

The hauntingly beautiful story of Lucy, who lives with her abalone-harvesting boyfriend of seven years, Jem (with whom things are strained), in the small town of Eaglehawk Neck on the Tasman Peninsula in eastern Tasmania, The Octopus and I manages to impressively weave together great, exuberant humour, rich, deep friendships and painful post-op ruminations about what trauma does to identity in one extraordinarily moving package.

Buoyantly alive in ways that will charm and delight you in equal measure, the novel is also fiercely introspective as Lucy grapples with the way that major lifechanging cancer surgery has transformed the landscape of her body and thus of the way she sees herself and interacts with the world.

“For some reason his lack of response made me hum with irritation and I found myself thinking, with more spite than’s comfortable, that what I’d enjoyed most about my time with Flo and Poppy was that I’d forgotten all about the lumps of silicone sitting beneath my skin; I’d lost myself and my body in the experience of processing the octopuses with Flo and Poppy in a way that I could no longer lose myself and my body in Jem, and it was the happiest I’d felt in a long while.” (P. 59)

A typically upbeat person of great warmth, humour and adventuresome outlook, Lucy is inherently, vibrantly likeable.

Thinking nothing of swimming in the ocean on moonlit nights if the mood or need suits her, she is the type of person who engages fulsomely and without reserve with those she loves such as Jem, elderly friend Flo (and her friend Poppy) and Flo’s son Harry whose return to the town complicates things in ways Lucy doesn’t see coming.

But her battle with cancer – what type is a spoiler since it has a huge bearing on what follows our first meeting with this uniformly wonderful person – has rocked her to the core, and while no one is necessarily treating her differently, she feels completely different about herself.

Not everyone understands the full expanse or import of this existential crisis, one which affects her in ways that surprise her and which demands answers she doesn’t feel she has until an outing with Flo and Poppy brings her face-to-face with the octopuses that populate the waters of Eaglehawk Neck.

This initial encounter brings forth a deep and abiding fascination with these extraordinarily complex, intelligent and highly sociable creatures, one which doesn’t just have a material affect on the way that Lucy views her body but she intrinsically sees herself.

Erin Hortle (image courtesy Read Tasmania)

Hortle intersperses the chapters that propel the immersively alive story of Lucy and her friends with tales of the creatures who inhabit the waters around the town.

Thus we are given the rich gift of insights from octopuses, seals and mutton birds which are vivaciously alive and emotionally evocative such that the animals of the ocean begin to feel more human that many of the people on the land above.

It’s a magically quirky perspective that may sound odd on paper and not at all in keeping with the drama playing out in the majority of the book’s chapters, but it is a blissfully rewarding, wholly affecting element that grants The Octopus and I a whole other dimension, one that amplifies and magnifies the meaningful life truths it contains.

While you will find it hard to be away from Lucy and Flo and the others – they are so full realised and delightfully appealing, even in their flaws, that being apart from them is hard; you won’t, of course, want the book to ever end – there is a sublime wonder to these ocean-based chapters which given an already lyrical book even more wonder and magic.

Given Lucy’s growing fascination and connection with the octopuses, it makes sense that the natural world which informs so much of the sparkling narrative is given such prominence and that the lessons we learn from these singularly unique perspectives come to have such a profound effect on Lucy and by extension, those around her and us.

“The contentedness shocks her for its completeness, and reminds her—in a way that makes her feel both hopeful and nostalgic—of how much she’s been missing it; that sense of just being in your body, and of your body being in the world. Of being un-thought, unqualified, just as is.” (P. 221)

The Octopus and I is an effervescent delight, a novel which brings the people, the town and the natural world alive in such bright, animated glory and with such gloriously glowing emotion – the emotions may not always be on the more positive side of life’s spectrum but they are always compelling and arresting, so much so that you don’t feel like you’re simply reading but living every last moment, good and bad, along with the characters – that it subsumes you in the very best of ways into a world that feels so whole and complete that it’s as if you could reach out and touch it.

It infuses this luminous sensibility and emotional vivacity with a keen insight on the ways in which trauma, pain and loss can shape who we are, our relationships and how we engage with the world around us.

Fearlessly truthful and winningly honest, The Octopus and I explores emotions and issues that many people might shy away from and which, truth be told, even Lucy, who is braver than most, finds confronting.

That it does so in such a richly human way is just one of the many things to love about a book which features characters you will absolutely fall in love and identify to degrees that may surprise you, Lucy being chief among them, situations which feel grounded and heartfelt in ways that cut to the soul and yet are interspersed with good humour and fulfilling company, and a world which, from the perspective of both its land-based people and it’s oceanic denizens, come with a great deal of pain and fear but also the opportunity for love, connection and life-transforming, deeply moving reinvention.

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