*I received a free ARC of this book with thanks to the author, NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: There’s more than one way to capture a life.
When Elspeth arrives at her ex-husband’s LA mansion for his 50th birthday party, she’s expecting a crowd for the British film director. Instead, there are just seven other guests and Richard’s pet octopus, Persephone, watching over them from her tank.
Come morning, Richard is dead.
In the weeks that follow, each of the guests come under suspicion: the school friend, the studio producer, the actress, the actor, the new boyfriend, the manager, the cinematographer and the ex-wife, Elspeth herself. As stories of Richard’s past surface, colliding with Elspeth’s memories of their marriage, she begins to question not just who killed Richard, but why these eight guests were invited, and what sort of man would want to trap this mysterious, intelligent creature.
From the LA hills to the Norfolk marshes, The Octopus is a stylish exploration of power: the power of memory, the power of perception, the power of one person over another.
The Octopus is a murder mystery in terms of the plot, but a slow, literary, character study in terms of style.
The setup is straightforward enough: eight guests are invited to what they think will be a glamorous 50th birthday bash, only to find that it is just them, their host, his staff, and his ‘pet’ octopus. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and oppressive, as birthday boy Richard proceeds to needle, intimidate and disturb his special guests, both individually and as a group, and it becomes clear that there are dark currents running beneath the champagne surface tension. The next morning, Richard is dead. But who, or what, killed him?
The characters and plot are well-constructed in this novel, and I was certainly invested in the question of who killed Richard and the motive. There are plenty of motives to choose from, too, as Richard was a completely unsympathetic character and every single one of his family members and intimate friends had plenty of good reasons to hate him and wish him dead. We get the story of events from Richards ex-wife, Elspeth, as she shifts her narrative between the events of the party and the investigative aftermath.
This is where I found myself somewhat disconnected from the story, as Elspeth is a strangely passive and stilted main character (for good narrative reasons), so her perspective lacks something in terms of emotional investment when reading it. Also, the jumps in timeline between past and present are not clearly distinguished, making the story confusing to follow at times, and disrupting the narrative flow.
There are some serious and disturbing issues covered within the scope of the story – domestic and professional abuse and control – and these are handled believably and sensitively, making them all the more horrific for those with any experience of such matters. There is a repeated theme of the masks we all wear with others, and the lies we tell others and ourselves just to get by – can we ever really know anyone?
I loved the underlying motif of the octopus, Persephone, and what she represented in the story, symbolically and as an intelligent, captive wild animal. She serves as the perfect representative for the story, and it felt fitting for her story to round off Elspeth’s narrative.
The Octopus is a disquieting literary mystery, with murky depths, but I was left with a feeling of indifference to the outcome of the story, caused by the combination of unsympathetic characters and unclear timelines. The only one I was really rooting for was the octopus!
I had expected a large, bursting party – one of the sprawling carnivals Richard usually held in his own honour – and on the flight over I’d comforted myself with the thought that I could tuck into a corner, avoid uncomfortable encounters, cling to Lillie’s side. I had not prepared for this claustrophobic, unnatural scene. It was a movie set. The cast, costumed, at the centre; the staff circling the periphery, ensuring everything would unfold as planned. Constructed scenery, the carefully placed furniture, ,the champagne and glasses as props. And there was Richard, slipping between the two worlds, ready to direct the dialogue between guests, to task his crew, here and there.
What did that make me? I felt I belonged to neither role, but I was not like Richard – I was not in among it all. I wouldn’t perform. I was passive. Maybe the camera, or audience.
– Tess Little, The Octopus
The Octopus releases on Amazon on 20th August 2020, but you can preorder it right now!