Reviewed: Erin Hortle, The Octopus and I, Allen & Unwin
Tucked in the bay of Teralina/Eaglehawk Neck is a checkerboard of rock carved from the land by the tide’s ebb and flow. The sea chemistry is eroding the stone bed and inscribing a mosaic of polygonal shapes that look almost man-made, as time falls away against the elements, slowly dissolving into the ocean. The Octopus and I, a debut novel by Tasmanian writer Erin Hortle, emerges from these shifting layers of memory, immersing the reader in a keen sense of place that emphasises the interconnection between humans and animals. It explores ideas of surface, touch and depth with an intimate and personal voice; challenging the stories we tell ourselves and the way we fit into the landscapes we inhabit. As its characters are placed in the context of the intersecting violences of colonisation, climate change and extinction, the novel reflects on the Tasman Peninsula’s bloody history and interrogates our responsibility to a warming world.
For Hortle’s protagonist Lucy, a survivor of breast cancer, immersion in the landscape is a way of feeling at home in her own body after undergoing chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. Early in the book she is hit by a car during a bid to save an octopus from being run over, which causes her to lose her silicone implants. She opts out of repeating implant surgery, as her silicone breasts had drawn unwanted attention both from her partner Jem and heckling strangers at the general store. Instead, on the advice of her therapist, she knits a pair of woollen breasts with her close friend Flo, whose son Harry prods Lucy—after she asks, ‘Do you want the long story or the short story?’—to tell him the ‘long story’ behind the unlikely knitting project. Here The Octopus and I begins in earnest, pieced together with tessellating memories.
Sometimes it feels as though Lucy is conversing with the reader, as her voice dips in and out with phrases such as ‘But I digress …’ and ‘In case you don’t know’. The novel is composed of disparate narratives told from the viewpoints of Lucy, Flo, Jem, a holidaying child named Jake, his father Shayne, and a kaleidoscope of perspectives attributed to seals, octopuses and shearwaters. These passages can be jarring: there are parts where scientific terminology impedes the storytelling with talk of ‘alphas’, ‘betas’ and ‘halfpups’ that describe animal hierarchies.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald near the publication of the book last year, Hortle acknowledged that ‘writing from the point of view of an animal is always an experiment that will fail’, but I can’t help thinking The Octopus and I could have been less intellectual in its construction of non-human characters. It feels too much like explication when a romantic narrative is imposed on the animals, especially one that corresponds to the human characters’ arcs. Even though this writing is couched in the premise of experimentalism, it lacks an overall sense of adventure. Rehashing anthropocentric tropes seems like an easy way out.
In crafting a story that examines the policing of borders and bodies, Hortle delves beneath the surface image of Eaglehawk Neck as a glittering vista beyond the glossy folds of a travel brochure, exposing a place imbued with the colonial brutalities of the former penal settlement: ‘They chained a line of dogs across the neck, so the place was basically an island. Near impossible to escape. You ever noticed the statue of the dog there, to show the tourists how it was?’ Hortle acknowledges the presence of the Paredarerme, who remain the traditional owners of Country, as well as the trauma experienced by local communities after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996: We ‘… can imagine him, striding down the hill, blank faced, heavy boots leaving prints in the damp grass, gun cradled lightly in his arms …’ By tracing these underlying narratives, Hortle shows how such legacies become inscribed in the land as physical memory, bearing witness to the ongoing impacts of violence and hegemony.
Like an octopus deftly cleaving apart the weedy caverns of memory, the novel betrays a desire for intimacy and understanding of landscapes, its many tentacles implicated in human nature. In the skirmishes between Lucy and Jem, the couple pit ethical quandaries against each other in a manner that appears as skipping stones over deeper, unspoken histories. They toggle between ontological themes of what is ‘natural’ and ‘right’, which often hew to unimaginative binaries: between passive and active, authentic and artificial.
In the acknowledgements section, Hortle states that The Octopus and I began as a thesis, which makes sense—ecofeminist critique and experimental writing come together brilliantly in novel form. Through this ecofeminist lens we see the violence of philosophical theories that pare humans from ecologies—much like the ‘nature is healing’ response to the global pandemic, certain sections of the environment movement are harmfully evolutionist. Conversations between Lucy and Jem examine a rugged individualism that doesn’t accommodate the numinous, shifting responsibilities that make up life in the Anthropocene. At times, Jem’s actions reveal an ecofascism—he likens homosexuality and infertility to cancer, with the Malthusian purpose of halting the reproduction of humans. Later he punishes other fishermen for not complying with his moral code, reflecting a widely held view of nature as a fixed state of being, ecologies systematised through a rigid kind of stasis and order. Like many environmentalists who narrow their vision to an individualist scope, the problem is positioned as human nature, not structures; greed, not capitalism; consumption, not colonialism.
In order to justify a manslaughter he commits, Jem rebukes Lucy, ‘It’s not black and white, is it?’ The Octopus and I worries at hierarchical value systems that continue to reproduce what geographers call ‘sacrifice zones’: classifications that indicate the thinking, well, if worst comes to worst, we can do without these places, animals or people. Lucy rails against the thinking that emerges from drawing lines between ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ species. She cares that the octopuses she loves can feel, that they strategise and plan and think, even if their lives are cut short by their own act of reproducing. Fertility and mortality are defiantly intertwined in the line ‘Ink like milk gone wrong’. Lucy’s choice to tattoo a frieze of octopuses onto her chest is a way of reinscribing her own story onto her body after surgery, asking: what makes a body feminine, authentic?
But there is often a sense of distance in the observing voice of Lucy, whose character exhibits an anxiety around authenticity, which she positions alongside feeling ‘alive’. ‘Real’ to her means rough around the edges; her admiration for those who she perceives to be ‘living off the land’ shows a romanticised vision of rural life, which she melds with the desire to connect to the land in a more visceral way. Before hunting for octopuses with Flo and her friend Poppy, she recognises that it’s not so much a drive to gather food that motivates her, but the ritual and kinship that arise from the experience: ‘What mattered … was the romantic memory of that night: the two women, the shifting light, living not just off the land but in the land; immersion.’
This develops into a voyeuristic desire to distance herself from her body by exulting in traditional practices that are not her own, to the point of cultural appropriation: ‘All I wanted in that moment was to gain access: to acquire a claim to that local inheritance; to immerse myself in that raw, feminine culture; to both transcend my body and collapse into history.’ This becomes explicit when Lucy asks Flo to take her hunting for shearwater chicks—a practice known as muttonbirding, an Aboriginal tradition that is widely prohibited among nesting sanctuaries today.
The Octopus and I highlights the interconnecting relationship between humans and animals in a way that is deeply personal and fraught. Its prose flickers from lyrical passages depicting the landscape to clipped, blunt dialogue peppered by local slang. The animals are portrayed through speech expressed in eddies of poetry that echo throughout the book: ‘The ocean rumbles and calls and thunders and beckons beyond the land I feel it I feel it I press on … And in between all these things there is so much water unbroken and rolling. So much water.’
Certain words and phrases (‘Works wonders’, ‘the octopus and I’, ‘twirls and bobs’) are often reiterated in the human chapters, a cadence that evokes the inhale-exhale rhythm of the sea. At the beginning of the book, Flo says to Lucy, ‘You can’t look at those things like that,’ as she rebuffs Lucy’s tendency to see the animals with sentimentality and guilt. This line bookends the novel; it is repeated several times. By switching deftly from present tense to perfect, past and conditional, Hortle underscores the unsettling tension between the past and present.
Instead of relying on overused devices in the genre (such as plots surrounding apocalyptic dystopias), The Octopus and I goes against the grain of literary climate fiction, focusing on the political and ecological intricacies of life in a changing climate. Without being didactic, Hortle examines the many human questions that lie unanswered, whether that’s in melting icecaps, drying rivers or methane beds dissolving at the bottom of the ocean. Indeed, how much longer can we pretend that land and people are separable, without losing our connection to both? •
Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn is a young writer living on Muwinina lands. Her work has appeared in Overland, Cordite, Voiceworks, Island and others. In 2018 she won the Scribe Nonfiction Prize.