Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 1, 2020

The Octopus and I, by Erin Hortle

The Octopus and I is a most interesting debut from Tasmanian author Erin Hortle.  It has an original premise: a young woman struggling with her body image after radical surgery for cancer forms a semi-symbiotic relationship with an octopus…

Yes, it sounds bizarre, and the opening chapter narrated by an octopus is a risky introduction which at six pages tested my patience, but the next chapter morphs into the cruel reality of the young woman unsure of her sexual identity or even who she is.  Lucy’s preoccupation is mostly with her breasts and the scarring because they are visible, but she also has to deal with the surgery for ovarian cancer too because now she can’t ever have children.  And although she is modern young woman with a postmodern education and a career in Tasmania’s eco-industry, her grief at losing so much is testing her relationship with Jem, who has lovingly supported her through it all—but just doesn’t understand.

Jem is an abalone fisherman, but paradoxically also a fierce eco-warrior.  He despises recreational fishermen and their excesses, he is contemptuous about Tasmania’s aquaculture industry, and he doesn’t hide his disdain from other people in the community who breach his eco-standards.  In the context of Lucy’s loss, he is sanguine about not having children, because he thinks the planet can’t afford them.  He does not understand that Lucy wanted the decision not to have children to be her decision, not a decision made for her by the disease.

For him, the trouble between them is about her breasts.

Some of my friends have had breast cancer.  Some have survived and thrived, one was permanently disabled by radical surgery which severed the nerves in her arm, one is currently facing up to a recurrence of it after years of remission, and one has died of it.  But although there have been great medical advances and improvements in survival rates, breast cancer is still a cruel disease which often robs a woman of her body image and impacts on her sexual relationships thereafter.  Breast cancer is not an event that ends with ‘closure’; it is an ongoing physical and emotional journey. The empathy with which Erin Hortle writes about this is not merely sensitive, it is educative as well.

Lucy’s first impulse is to have reconstructive surgery, and she opts for what she anticipates will be ‘better’ than before.  Jem, who can’t help himself, likes her bigger breasts, and other men admire them too.  She hates them.  And when a road accident lands her back in hospital, she is glad to have what’s left of them removed.  Her therapist doesn’t understand this, and neither does Jem.  He’s not at all keen when she decides to have her flat chest and its scars tattooed with the octopus she was trying to save.  But Jem is not a brute: the novel wrestles with his nostalgia for the Lucy he fell in love with, and it’s not just her body that he misses.  He is struggling with grief and loss too, because along with the changes in her personality, she is also shutting him out.  She is too distressed to negotiate a troubled relationship on top of everything else.  And he just can’t get it right.

Perhaps that makes his reckless behaviour in the novel’s shocking conclusion understandable.  Lucy struggles to reconcile the love interest who’s arrived in her life, with the man who’s been her stalwart support throughout this crisis:

Harry, so different to Jem, who is impulsive at every turn: quick in opinion, in joy, in anger, in grief.  Jem’s recklessness shines his charisma so bright one can’t not be captivated; but equally it shines his hypocrisy so obvious one can’t not be, at times, dismayed that this gold-flecked man isn’t all he promises to be.  Except he is—he’s exactly who he is: passionate and pigheaded and erratic.

Jem’s right.  She is a hypocrite like him.  The only difference between them is the fact that she spent years steeped like a teabag in a postmodernist and poststructuralist education until her strength of conviction was soaked from her; because she learnt that nothing means anything anyway.  (Except that’s a lie because it does, doesn’t it? And that’s the problem.) Whereas for Jem, everything means everything all the time and so the inconsistencies of it all are laid bare then obscured by the lapping tides of reason, as if reason’s a thing of substance.

Harry, on the other hand.  She doesn’t think she’s heard him venture enough of an opinion to be a hypocrite.  Instead he’s all considered motion, always moving steadily with a deliberateness that both animates and contains him in a way that would be, in busy, erratic Jem, unimaginable.  (p.312)

Woven through this compelling, heart-wrenching narrative, is a strand about the creatures in Lucy’s life.  Through the narratives of the octopus, a small seal and a mutton-bird, the reader becomes an intimate observer of how human behaviour impacts on these creatures as sentient beings.  The novel is not sentimental about this: it recognises the complexities of these issues. Jem rationalises making his living by harvesting abalone because they’re not sentient beings.  It’s also part of his family heritage, while harvesting native fauna for food is part of the cultural heritage of characters such as Poppy and Flo.  Women doing these things together and passing on their traditions is also an important aspect of female bonding which becomes vitally important to Lucy as she negotiates her new identity…

A couple of matters to be aware of: there is a lot of earthy language in The Octopus and I.  Recreational drunkenness and drug use is depicted as commonplace, and Lucy uses the crude language of the coastal Tasmanian community as part of her everyday vocabulary.  This includes the repeated use of a word that is still not seen or heard in public media—and in this novel it’s not used in anger or as a feminist might reclaim it—but rather in everyday conversation as a term to describe someone utterly despicable. The other issue validates my insistence on reviewing books in their final form and not uncorrected proof copies: the front and back endpapers form an inescapable reproduction of a sexually explicit work of Japanese erotica.  This kind of ‘edginess’ is a bit risky for a debut author, IMO…

Caroline Baum reviewed The Octopus and I for the SMH.  So did Fiona Wright in The Saturday Paper.

Author: Erin Hortle
Title: The Octopus and I
Cover design and illustration by Alissa Dinallo
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760875640, pbk., 360 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: The Octopus and I

 


Responses

  1. Will I or won’t I? Read the novel…. of course I will. I feel almost compelled to read every novel by a Tasmanian (or set in Tasmania) that I can. Thank you, again, Lisa. I will approach ‘The Octopus and I’ with caution.

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    • LOL YOU know me, I’m no Pollyanna. No school teacher who worked in the suburb I worked in, could be. But just be careful who you pass it on to!

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  2. I have been curious what this book is about so your timing is good. Not sure I’m drawn to it but love the cover. 🤠🐧

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    • I think that with your love of animals, you would like it.

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  3. An octopus who is a narrator? Now that has to be a first. It would test my patience too so it’s fortunate that she didn’t continue with that device. The rest of the novel sounds quite dark but fascinating.

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    • It’s not exactly dark… it’s more that it’s revealing of the way women have so much invested in their physical appearance and what a struggle that becomes when something intervenes to change it.

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  4. Goodness – I was guessing it drew on Hokusai’s notorious image and then read your comments about the endpapers. As you say – maybe a little risky and audacious but then maybe they want the book to get some attention with it…

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  5. It’s my great fear: “You just don’t get it.” Books by women who say their partner is loving and caring .. and still doesn’t get it always make me wonder, well, what else can we do? Ahh.. living with women is such a struggle.

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    • Yup…

      And so is living with men. Or anybody, really.

      In the book, Lucy has to see a counsellor because they thought she’d attempted suicide when she had the car accident, and this thread portrays the therapist as not understanding as well. It’s not for me to know, because nothing so terrible has ever happened to me, but it seems to me that a counsellor’s role is to help the person adjust to whatever has happened and that there can be a future, and part of that is to realise that *nobody* ever really understands, and *nobody* is ever 100% supportive in the “right” way and that if you hang out for that in your relationships you are never going to be contented.

      Some people think that ‘communication’ can fix everything but since none of us is perfect, it can’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Am I going to like this? I was sent a copy but I’m really dithering over whether I want to read it or not. And I’m guessing the word she uses is one of my particular pet hates.

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    • I dithered too, I’ve had it for a while. But I’m glad I read it. It’s like reading Sally Hepworth’s The Things We Keep. Someone you know and love is going to have Alzheimer’s and someone you know and love is going to have breast cancer. It’s good to have a glimpse into how that feels.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] The Octopus and I, by Erin Hortle – While this debut novel “from Tasmanian author Erin Hortle” contains plenty of  “earthy language” and “recreational drunkenness”, it is also an “interesting” story with an “original premise”, says Lisa Hill from ANZ LitLovers. […]

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