In a time where the impact of humans on the natural world is spotlighted more than ever, Erin Hortle’s The Octopus and I weaves a narrative that uses the relationships between human and animal to explore how we connect with ourselves, each other, and the world around us.
Lucy and Jem live at Eaglehawk Neck on the Tasman Peninsula. Lucy is recovering from cancer, and struggling to accept her post-treatment body. She feels disconnected until an interest in the octopuses that live in the surrounding waters leads to a friendship with an older woman and her son. Lucy’s world view is challenged; through her new companions she develops a deeper understanding of herself, the world, and her place in it.
Erin Hortle has produced a stunning debut novel. The sense of place is rich and drives the story forward beautifully. Each character views Eaglehawk Neck through a different lens and the variation in these perspectives, coloured by each person’s values and experiences, gently draws the reader to question ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. By allowing each character to share scenes from their point of view, Hortle blurs the lines between black and white. Can two conflicting values both be right? How can we strike a balance that respects both sides of the argument? The reader is fully immersed in ‘the Neck’, swept in by the sensory details and lyrical prose that demonstrate so perfectly the deep bond each person has with this place they call home.
There is a nod to the politics of community and environment in the narrative as different ideologies clash over the ecosystem, humanity’s place in it and treatment of it. Lucy is torn between her strong connection to the octopuses and the affinity she feels with her body and the planet as she learns to catch and prepare them with Flo. Tourist fishermen regard the ocean as their personal playground, defining their sense of self and their masculinity through dominating their surroundings even as their carelessness and cruelty earning Jem’s ire. Jem hovers somewhere in the middle; berating Lucy and the tourists for what he sees as reprehensible behaviour even as he himself makes a living from the sea. The question is raised: is one creature or ideal more or less worthy than another? How do we decide which matters more, and what is the opportunity cost? Hortle sees each of her main characters contemplating these questions, with life-changing consequences.
One particular delight is that Erin Hortle uses both human and animal storylines to reflect on the interactions between the two worlds. There is the first person narration of main character Lucy, and the close third person point of view that follows other characters’ perspectives. Additionally there is a mirror of those interpersonal relationships in a thread which follows two young seals as they grapple with their position in their society and with each other. The true standouts, however, are the voices of the octopuses. Hortle’s sumptuous stream-of-consciousness writing captures the animal instinct and experience, giving these creatures a distinctive personality and sense of urgency. It is this voice that opens the book, and this elemental tone floats beneath the entire novel.
The Octopus and I is a timely story about the interconnectedness of our world, our place in it, and how we construct and reconstruct our identities as we move through it. Against a stunning Australian backdrop, Hortle’s vibrant narrative asks the right questions about how we see ourselves and each other, and where we fit into our environments and our relationships. The sparkling imagery and complex, nuanced characters linger long past the last pages.