I was drawn to this book by one of its themes – breast cancer and the effects of this disease on a person’s body and mind. Having myself had double mastectomy, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction, and read a lot of memoir and other non-fiction about breast cancer, it struck me as unusual to find a work of contemporary fiction about these experiences. I was right about this being an unusual novel, in more ways than I’d expected.
The first pages plunge readers straight into the sea, where the narrator is an octopus, and the lyrical prose conjures the movements of water, seaweed, moonlight, air currents:
I feel the surface sink and I feel I see moonlight with my skin and it is caught up in the eddies that bubble and swirl about my arms that curl and unfurl and the moonlight envelopes me caressing my arms as they caress the kelpy floor the kelpy shore.The Octopus and I p21 (ebook version)
In this opening we learn that the octopus meets a human woman in the sea. From here the author introduces us to that woman, the protagonist Lucy, who is knitting… breasts.
So, a unusual opening.
The breasts, we discover, are prosthetic ones, because Lucy has had her natural breasts removed in surgery for breast cancer. Her psychologist suggests this knitting exercise to help Lucy work through her feelings about her new body and lack of breasts. And the link with the octopus? Well, that soon becomes clear as well.
I can’t begin to describe the plot of this novel because it would be a spoiler for anyone who has not read it. I will say that it maintains its unusual style throughout, varying straight narrative about human characters with a more stream of consciousness style, when the author is describing experiences as they might be felt by animal characters: the octopuses, of course, but also seals and birds.
Through these sections, she explores the impact of humans on the environment, at a micro level as well as bigger picture issues. We inhabit the bodies of animals and birds for just a moment and ‘see’ their world as they perhaps do.
For me, the sections focussing on the human characters worked best, perhaps because of my own interest in the exploration of how people respond to cancer. This includes both the person with cancer but also, acquaintances and people close to her. Ms Hortle does this well:
It was all avoidance and eggshells before, when all I had were scars and a bald head. And clearer still was the fact that it wasn’t so much the word remission but the fake breasts that relaxed everyone in my presence. That flick of the eyes, from my face to my chest, and I could see – almost feel – their shoulders soften, their exhale. It was if when my breasts entered the room, the elephant that was my cancer exited via the other door.The Octopus and I pp73-74 (ebook version)
The novel is set in the coastal region of south-east Tasmania and I also enjoyed how the setting becomes a big part of the story.
This novel will be of interest to people who enjoy a challenge in their reading, those who like a book to explore individual dilemmas and losses, and those who like fiction that asks questions about environmental issues we face today. The Octopus and I weaves all three into an unashamedly Australian story that will leave you thinking.
The Octopus and I was published by Allen and Unwin in 2020.
I am a lover of history in all it’s forms, though I have sometimes wondered how my interest in Australian history survived my school years in the 1960’s and 70’s, with the dry recitations that passed for history back then. I learnt about early European explorers and their ‘discoveries’, the names of people – usually men – of note, something about the Depression and the World Wars. But not enough – not nearly enough – of the humans who populated these past eras – their strivings, motivations and follies. Where, oh where, were the dramas, the absurdities, the outrageous injustices and outright comedies, the incredible feats of resilience and courage that peppered our past?
In more recent years there have been some wonderful works of fiction and non-fiction that have brought this human part of history into sharper focus. From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories by Mark McKenna springs to mind, as do excellent podcasts such as Forgotten Australia by Michael Adams or The History Listen from ABC’s Radio National. Fled by Meg Keneally is a novel based on the astounding escape from Sydney by convict Mary Bryant; Esther by Jessica North tells the story of the woman who arguably managed and controlled one of NSW’s first large agricultural estates. And there is now, thankfully, plenty of literature to tell us the stories from indigenous Australia – non-fiction such as Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu; and fiction, including this year’s Miles Franklin awarded The Yield by Tara June Winch.
Ten Rogues is subtitled The unlikely story of convict schemers, a stolen brig and an escape from Van Diemen’s Land to Chile. As the title promises, it is both a rollicking good tale, and a well-researched true- life adventure. The convict at the centre of the tale is Jimmy Porter, a man who must surely have possessed the proverbial ‘nine lives’ to have escaped the multiple death sentences he faced over his career as a criminal and teller of tall tales. The author acknowledges that Jimmy’s penchant for exaggeration and blurring the truth made the research more difficult (the book is based, in part, on judicious selection from Jimmy Porter’s own accounts of his actions, as well as other contemporary narratives, convict records and newspapers, and some additional delving in Chile.)
The book weaves all of these together with information on the history of convict transportation to Australia, the grim conditions in penal stations such as Tasmania’s Sarah Island, the historic links between the slave trade and transportation, and eighteenth and nineteenth century debates about crime, punishment and prison reform. It does so in a very readable way, because apart from anything else, the story of Jimmy Porter and his band of escapees is one of luck and misfortune, unwise choices, incredible feats of endurance and courage, and moments of humour and bravado, that might be seen as very unlikely, if they appeared in a work of fiction.
These are the stories from our past – the funny, the ugly, the tragic, the astounding – that for me, make history so irresistible. Read this book for a rollicking good tale and to learn more about Australia’s colonial and convict periods. It delivers both in an entirely absorbing package.
Ten Rogues was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.
Peter Grose is the author of several other books about episodes in Australian history including A Very Rude Awakening (about the raid on Sydney harbour by Japanese mini-submarines during WWII) and An Awkward Truth (about the bombing of Darwin in 1942). These promise to be just as intriguing as Ten Rogues and are now on my Want To Read list.