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The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle

This was an unusual book to which I had incredibly mixed reactions. I can only think of this as a positive thing – for both the reader and the author. In telling the story of Lucy, a breast cancer survivor who, while struggling to deal with her new body (never mind the trauma of cancer treatment and everything the mind, body, and those around you deal with post-recovery – I speak from experience), has a strange and incredible experience with an octopus.

This has a profound impact on her life in many, many ways, changing her both internally and externally and altering the relationships she has with those closest to her, those she meets and, above all, the natural environment and the fauna that inhabit it in ways humans cannot possibly comprehend.

The novel opens in one of the most original ways I’ve read in a long time and it took me a moment to become accustomed to the voice. I found it strangely beautiful and moving – particularly when I understood it was a wondrous creature narrating. This occurs at different times in the novel- creatures take over the story. I am not as convinced by the success of those other voices or the position they hold in the book as I was this first one. In many ways, they jarred a little. That said, when Lucy and the humans and their interactions take over, the story moves well and the characters are interesting and mostly engaging.

There were times I really didn’t like Lucy at all. I struggled so hard with this because as a woman, cancer survivor, and someone who feels bonds with the environment (especially in Tasmania), I felt I should like her more. But, as is the case with others in the book, she is flawed and all too human and a bloody great hypocrite too (I really, really loathed some of the things she did). Yet, she owns her failings while some others excuse them or seek to blame others. Perhaps the reader isn’t meant to like her very much and that is the point. By the end, she is somewhat redeemed, but only somewhat. Thinking over this, I find this to be a positive rather than a negative and think the author is to be commended for writing such an honest character who can potentially polarise readers. No doubt, others will love her – and that’s a sign of terrific writing and characterisation.

The Tasmanian environment is beautifully captured – I could smell the sea, see and inhale the scents of the various land and sea scapes that were described. Hortle really captures the sense of local life as well and what it’s like to both live in a small community and enter one as an outsider.

The feminist component of the book, the examination of women’s bodies and their objectification and the ways in which we can be complicit in this or seek to resist and subvert it is sometimes heavy-handed. Again, I feel awkward saying that as I understood what Lucy was trying to say and how she also set out to resist dominant narratives of femininity and find agency in a world that so often denies it to those who don’t conform, but it was sometimes (only sometimes) overplayed and usually because the point had already been made really well earlier. Still, we need these kinds of stories of resistance and the whys and wherefores of them – the way women particularly (and men) collaborate in their subjection, work within and around it or refuse to partake. It’s a continuously negotiated space that, like sand, can shift and change in a moment. If you think about in this way, the novel explores this well.  

Overall, I did enjoy the story – the challenges it gave to me as a reader. It is well-written and certainly original story-telling.

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