“A lonely woman discovers that sometimes humans don’t have all the answers.”
An octopus draws you in and his knowledge and insight about humans keeps you interested. Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt is a story told in several perspectives: the octopus’s, a widow’s, and a young man’s. As the story progresses, their lives intersect and collide, and their emotions and motivations are laid bare. Among the humor is death, grief, failure, stubbornness, shortcomings, resolve, and acceptance. I was incredibly moved by the ending, and I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.
Tova Sullivan’s best friend is an octopus. A giant Pacific octopus named Marcellus, to be precise, and he is that—the novel opens with the first of several short chapters narrated in the first person (unlike the rest of the book) by the octopus himself, who can, as he points out, do many things we don’t know he can do. What he can’t do is escape from captivity in a small public aquarium in the fictional town of Sowell Bay, near Puget Sound.
Tova, too, has lived in the town for most of her life, in a house built by her father. At age 70, she’s stoic but lives with layers of grief. Her estranged brother has just died, with no reconciliation between them, and her beloved husband died a couple of years before from cancer. But the unsealable wound is the disappearance 30 years ago of her only child. Erik was an 18-year-old golden boy when he vanished, and the police, although they found no body, believe he killed himself. Tova does not.
She fills her days with visits with her longtime friends, a group of gently eccentric women who call themselves the Knit-Wits, and fills her nights cleaning at the aquarium. There, she prides herself on keeping the glass and concrete scrupulously clean while chatting with the inhabitants, although she saves her deep conversations for Marcellus. Lately she’s been concerned about the way he’s been escaping from his tank and cruising through the other enclosures for live snacks—and sometimes visiting nearby rooms, which risks his life.
Tova is too preoccupied to pay attention to the sweet but awkward flirting of Ethan, the Scotsman who runs the grocery store, but she does get drawn into the complicated life of a young man named Cameron who wanders into Sowell Bay. Although Tova and other characters are dealing with serious problems like loss, grief, and aging, Van Pelt maintains a light and often warmly humorous tone. Tova’s quest to figure out what happened to Erik weaves her back into other people’s lives—and occasionally into someone’s tentacles.
A debut novel about a woman who befriends an octopus is a charming, warmhearted read.
“My neurons number half a billion, and they are distributed among my eight arms. On occasion, I have wondered whether I might have more intelligence in a single tentacle than a human does in its entire skull.”
“It seems to be a hallmark of the human species: abysmal communication skills. Not that any other species are much better, mind you, but even a herring can tell which way the school it belongs to is turning and follow accordingly. Why can humans not use their millions of words to simply tell one another what they desire?”
“Ah, to be a human, for whom bliss can be achieved by mere ignorance! Here, in the kingdom of animals, ignorance is dangerous. The poor herring dropped into the tank lacks any awareness of the shark lurking below. Ask the herring whether what he doesn’t know can hurt him.”