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  • a brilliant debut novel

    The Octopus and I is the first novel by Australian author, Erin Hortle. The answer to Harry Seaborne’s innocently asked question is “breasts”. That is what his mother, Flo, and Lucy Allenby are knitting. After Lucy provides the short explanation, Harry expresses interest in the long version, and Lucy obliges. The story she tells Harry and Flo isn’t the whole story; the whole story is what Lucy gives the reader. And not just Lucy: the narrative is carried by other (human) characters, who share certain incidents from their perspective; importantly, the eponymous octopus gives her version (as do some of her sisters); a young male seal with a taste for salmon contributes his experience; a male mutton bird relates his family’s tragedy; and a pregnant young female seal hangs out with an octopus mum. As a breast cancer survivor, Lucy gives the reader an insight into the aftermath of the radical surgery that many thus afflicted must undergo. The sense of loss and grief is well conveyed, and the reaction, by members of her small community, to Lucy’s reconstructive surgery, to her implants, will be a revelation to some. The comments, the invasion of privacy and breach of personal space to which people seem to feel entitled, is breathtaking. Through Lucy, Hortle explores attitudes to body image “… the idea that it’s ‘natural’ for women to want breasts or bigger breasts or whatever… it’s not so much ‘natural’ as culturally inscribed. It’s all about the objectification of women and …women subjecting themselves to the male gaze.” In Lucy’s husband Jem, Hortle gives the reader the point of view and reactions of a certain type of male to this disfigurement, while Lucy’s original and quirky solution to her hated chest scars is more than a match for her psychologist’s suggestion. Lucy’s character is complex and well developed; the secondary characters are appealing and much more than one-dimensional stereotypes, even those who play very minor roles in the overall story. Hortle also touches on the need for connection and the passing on of intergenerational knowledge. Her descriptive prose is often gorgeous, easily evoking the majesty of the Tasmanian coastline. Her anthropomorphic depictions of the various creatures are a delight and her imagined cruising beta male seals are very reminiscent of the way teenaged human males behave. The octopuses in this novel are stars in their own right and Lucy’s enchantment with these fascinating creatures is easily shared by the reader. This is a brilliant debut novel and more from this talented author will be eagerly anticipated. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.

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