By Julie Kish
Remarkably Bright Creatures
By Shelby Van Pelt
This novel was highly recommended and I dove into it without knowing much about it. So, when the first chapter began with a lengthy monologue by a giant Pacific octopus named Marcellus, I thought, “What the heck is this? I wasn’t expecting a novel with fantastical characters.
However, octopuses (yes, not octopi) have held a special place in my heart after I was brought to tears by the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher, a story about filmmaker Craig Foster’s unlikely relationship with an octopus in the South African Kelp Forest.
As I continued to read, it became apparent that the octopus was not the protagonist. Although there are chapters narrated by Marcellus, most of the novel is written in the third person. It follows the lives of highly relatable human characters, all searching for a meaningful connection to others and a purpose to their lives.
I’m glad I decided to keep reading. This may be one of the most exquisitely-written novels I’ve ever read in terms of writing technique, use of prose, pace and character development.
The story takes place in the fictional town of Sowell Bay, a small seaside community in northern Washington State. It’s a heartwarming and charming story about the friendship between a lonely widow (Tova), a down-on-his-luck young man (Cameron) and a 60-pound giant Pacific octopus (Marcellus).
Tova is a widow of five years, but the loss of her son 30 years earlier haunts and defines her. Her son was 18 years old when he disappeared in a mysterious boating accident.
Seventy-year-old Tova doesn’t need the money, but she wants to keep busy so she takes a job cleaning the local aquarium at night. She never expected to form a connection with the aquarium’s octopus.
Then there is Cameron, a 30-year-old man fresh from a broken relationship. When he was eight, his mother walked out on him, and he’s never known his father. His life is a mess, primarily due to a string of bad life decisions. On a whim, he goes to Sowell Bay to confront the man he thinks is his father, but the man is an elusive character to find.
The third main character is a highly intelligent and very grumpy octopus. Marcellus came to the aquarium as a rescued juvenile, and he counts the days he has been “held captive.” He dreams of regaining his freedom and returning to the open sea. Some nights he slithers out of his tank and gorges himself on the sea cucumbers in the adjacent tank and occasionally on food left in the aquarium staff lounge.
He feels utterly alone in the world until he befriends the cleaning lady and is delighted to learn that he has information that will help Tova solve the mystery of her son’s disappearance. Marcellus must use every trick in his old invertebrate body to communicate this information to Tova before he runs out of time.
The way the author intersects the lives of the three characters is beyond clever, and the portrayal of the bond between Tova and Marcellus is reading magic. This unconventional piece of literature perfectly combines emotion, humor, wit and wisdom.
Remarkably Bright Creatures is American author Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel, and it was a New York Times Bestseller and the Today Show Book Club Pick for May 2022. The author was inspired to write the story after watching an internet video of a giant Pacific octopus repeatedly escaping his enclosure.