In the seclusion of the pandemic many of us have more time and silence to pay attention to detail, especially in books. With the natural world having a rest from all our fossil fuels, it is timely to read books written about our bond with nature, including the nature of our human selves.
I always have a hefty pile of books to read and, madly, agreed to be part of a book club with my university colleagues to help us all feel some camaraderie during isolation. My contribution to our list was an early Margaret Atwood novel, The Edible Woman, which connects to my interest in female embodiment. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m excited to get into it. I explored the female experience in Fauna through a mother carrying a genetically altered child and have been reading another view on the female body from Erin Hortle in her novel, The Octopus and I.
I met Erin last October in Sydney when our publisher, Allen & Unwin, brought us together to talk to booksellers about our upcoming novels and I read a sample chapter of it back then. So, when it was released in April I was keen to find out what she made of these early pages.
The novel starts with an evocative chapter from the point of view of an octopus and takes the reader into a slippery, submarine place which bubbles with purpose and fecundity. But the octopus doesn’t tell the whole story, rather it becomes a motif which activates healing, sometimes with additional suffering, for the central character.
Lucy is coming to terms with her body after a double mastectomy and the novel presents her body to the reader in visceral ways as she experiments with the erasure and replacement of those most maternal parts of the female body. One of the first things that struck me about the motif of the octopus was the bulbous shape of its head and the way that image reflects the breast. This is picked up in the novel through Lucy’s octopus fishing, the severing of the head from the tentacles and the detail of violent separation where body parts show signs of sentience. Pickling their legs is particularly gruelling in this context.
The octopus is known for its intelligence and the human breast is also an intelligent organ. It has a language of its own, a lactating breast will call to its baby and respond to its needs for nutrition, adapting to the conditions and prioritising survival of a woman’s offspring. There is more that is lost with mastectomy than an admired bosom, as Lucy realises early in the novel, and it is the way the author synthesises this idea with the octopus that makes this novel really special. The writing of this is strong, drawing wonderful and conflicting images like this one:
I ignored her and peered down at the octopus, which was still writhing under my weight. Sounds stupid, but I wondered if the octopus was making some kind of desperate attempt to remind me of my own body by inking me right in the spot my body had thwarted any maternal aspirations. Ink like milk gone wrong. (Hortle, 70-71)
Little treasures like that last sentence gives me plenty to think about in the metaphoric space carved out here and lead through to the renegotiated woman-identity of Lucy.
The work is set in Tasmania, in the coastal landscape of Eaglehawk Neck, an hour from Hobart, which is beautifully depicted. The behaviour of the amateur fishermen is particularly disturbing, but nothing surprising (I live on a regional coast). Regional landscapes are important habitats, breeding grounds and ultimately mean life and death to the animal characters in The Octopus and I. This contrasts with the functionalist approach of the human characters in the novel, even the ones you are meant to like and who have a more gentle approach to taking what nature gives, like Flo and Lucy’s partner Jem. Just as a side note, it is great to see a good man in contemporary Australian fiction instead of the toxic and flawed ones I often seem to read. They are here too, but Jem is a gem.
Even though this is a pretty book and aesthetically pleasing with its cover art inside and out, it is also brutal and disturbing, not something to be taken lightly. As a reader I love to be challenged and, as a writer, I love seeing how other writers do this.
Before I get to The Edible Woman, the coastal gothic novel The Salt Madonna by Catherine Noske is calling me into another tantalising and disturbing space, sorry book club. But like all good stories, The Octopus and I has imprinted on my imagination and first I need to decompress, take a walk on the beach and keep an eye out for those eyes that look out for me.
Donna Mazza is a writer and academic at Edith Cowan University. She is author of Fauna (Allen & Unwin, 2020) and The Albanian (Fremantle Press, 2007), winner of the TAG Hungerford Award. Her short stories, poetry and other works have been widely published in Australia and overseas.