Books

Erin Hortle
The Octopus and I

The Octopus and I opens with a short chapter in the voice of an octopus, heavily pregnant, attempting to cross the isthmus at Eaglehawk Neck, near Port Arthur. “My body is brimming is pulsing is purring is ready,” the octopus narrates, “… the moonlight envelops me caressing my arms as they caress the kelpy floor the kelpy shore.” This is a gesture that sets up the book’s thematic and stylistic concerns: the novel is largely about the interconnections between the animal and human worlds, and the ethical problems that our relationships with different kinds of life forms often elide. Animals – the octopus, a mutton bird, a pair of seals – are important characters here, and while Erin Hortle’s attempts to enter their subjectivity aren’t always this successful, they provide a continual counterbalance to the dramas played out in the human characters’ lives. The book is very much a work of ecological fiction, a genre that is becoming increasingly common in Australian literature, and in which octopuses – because of their intelligence and strangeness – frequently occur.

The octopus in this novel is rescued from an oncoming car by Lucy, a local who has recently undergone a double mastectomy and subsequent breast reconstruction as treatment for cancer, which has left her feeling alienated from her own body and reassessing her own life. This interaction – which Lucy later refers to as “The Octopus Incident” – becomes a catalyst for Lucy’s explorations of her new body and new self, and how else she might live in the wake of personal disaster. Lucy becomes fascinated by octopuses, joining two other women as they fish for, and then pickle, the creatures; reading about them; and deciding to have a mural of them tattooed across her chest. Her actions don’t make sense to her, or to her husband, Jem, but they feel right, and they prove transformative.

The Octopus and I is also keenly interested in landscape and place, and contains some beautiful and attentive descriptions of the shifting light and weather in this wild part of Tasmania. Hortle is adept at capturing the local vernacular – her characters speak with gruffness, dry humour and slangy shortened words that mostly feel very genuine, only occasionally tipping towards, but never quite becoming, caricature. And while its narrative pace sometimes lags, the book is animated by its ideas, and by the risks it is taking with voice and temporality and form.

Fiona Wright

Allen & Unwin, 368pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2020 as "Erin Hortle, The Octopus and I".

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Reviewer: Fiona Wright