Erin Hortle explores southern Tasmania and its inhabitants – both human and animal – in her debut novel The Octopus And I. While the plot revolves around Lucy, a woman struggling to come to terms with changes to her life and her body, Hortle’s narrative takes in those around her and the creatures that live in and around her home on the Tasman Peninsula. In doing so she delivers a novel that is affecting but also one that deals with a number of current issues.
The Octopus and I opens with a short piece from the point of view of a migrating octopus, the first of a number of animal point-of-view vignettes. It then moves to Lucy is coming to terms with a double trauma and is encouraged to tell the “long story” of her current situation. That story involves moving to Tasmania, cancer, a double mastectomy and later an accident involving her, an octopus and a fast moving car. Once this story is told, the tale moves forward, taking in her growing estrangement from her partner Jem and at the same time an attraction to newcomer Harry, coupled with a growing fascination with octopuses which includes having their image tattooed on her changed body.
Lucy’s struggle to come to terms with her life is told with great empathy. Her struggle with her own body image and the views of others is drawn out through her relationships with Jem, her friend Flo, her therapist and her tattooist, who in some ways becomes her alternative therapist. Hortle is not trying to say that there is any one right way to deal with this kind of trauma, but in the end the importance lies in the way Lucy sees herself and in the choices that she makes.
There is an environmental debate at the heart of The Octopus and I, and again, this is one that Hortle does not try to resolve. Lucy’s accident happens when she is out catching octopuses for pickling with her friend Flo. After that, and her growing fascination with the creatures, she is unable to bring herself to catch and kill them. But she still participates in an illegal trip to a nearby island to catch mutton birds chicks, a protected species. Meanwhile her partner Jem rails against recreational fishers who go tuna fishing and catch sharks for sport, even though he himself catches tuna and makes a living by exploiting his family’s lucrative abalone licence. Despite these contradictions (which Lucy points out to him) Jem sees himself as an activist, a position that will set up the drama that drives the latter part of the novel.
The Octopus and I has a strong sense of place. Through the range of characters and description of the landscape, Hortle brings the small community of Eaglehawk Neck, the gateway to the penal colony of Port Arthur, to life. Lucy herself is a “blow-in” having only lived in the area for a few years and questions of belonging and connectedness are also considered. The scenes that take place on the ocean – fishing, abalone diving, surfing – are particularly evocative. Part of this is done through the short sections from the point of view of local wildlife – octopuses, seals and mutton birds. While these sections feel a little too anthropomorphic and forced they do give a more rounded view of the environment in which the action is taking place.
The Octopus and I is an ambitious debut novel. Taking trauma at its centre but also exploring environmental issues through a range of recognisable and believable characters. While some of the aspects are not as successful as others, this is overall an evocative and affective novel that asks plenty of questions but leaves the reader to consider how they might be answered.