An octopus solves a mystery in the novel “Remarkably Bright Creatures”

A source of surprise joy in the first year of the pandemic was a beautifully filmed underwater documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” about a filmmaker who strikes up a relationship with an octopus in the cold waters of a southern kelp forest. -African. If viewers have learned anything, it’s that octopuses are smart and sensitive.

In Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel, “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” the titular intelligent creature is a giant Pacific octopus at the fictional Sowell Bay Aquarium in Washington state. Nicknamed Marcellus by the daughter of the aquarium owner, this cephalopod, which was taken into juvenile captivity after being seriously injured by a wolf eel, is nearing the end of its four-year lifespan. He is not happy with his captivity or impending demise. But his final months brighten when he befriends the night housekeeper, a recently widowed woman in her sixties.

Petite but mighty, Swedish-born Tova Lindgren Sullivan is resolutely self-sufficient. She takes the job of janitor not because she needs the money, but because she is compulsively clean and needs a meaningful activity.

Tova, like several characters in “Remarkably Bright Creatures”, is marked by loss and lingering grief. She never got over the sudden death of her only child, Erik, who mysteriously disappeared in Puget Sound one night in the spring of his senior year in high school 30 years ago. Foul play was ruled out, but Tova never bought into the suicide explanation for her happy son on the cusp of college and a bright future. The lack of closure eats away at her through the decades, as does the lack of heirs. She feels Erik’s absence particularly acutely when his longtime friends – the Knit-Wits – talk about their offspring. A fall at the aquarium heightens Tova’s worries about growing old alone in the beautiful three-level house her father built when she was 8 years old.

The octopus recognizes Tova’s sadness and what he calls “the hole in his heart”. After she saves him one night after finding him entangled in wires during one of her frequent escapes, he decides to help solve the mystery of her son’s disappearance. With its multiple arms, the octopus is good at picking up clues, both literally and figuratively. He realizes that a key he picked up from the bottom of the bay before he was captured, part of a collection of treasures he accumulates behind the rock in his tank, may help unlock this case. Van Pelt’s sharp-eyed invertebrate has an incredible (yet wondrous) ability to grasp connections that others don’t see.

Marcellus’ ironic, curmudgeonly point of view is conveyed in short diary-like remarks interspersed throughout this otherwise third-person narrative. He is held in high regard and doesn’t think much of most humans. “My neurons number half a billion,” he comments. “On occasion I’ve wondered if I could have more intelligence in a single tentacle than a human has in his whole skull.” On day 1,306 of his captivity, he boasted, “I’m very good at keeping secrets. You could say I have no choice. Who can I talk to? My options are limited. He wonders why humans don’t explode with all the secrets they carry. “It seems to be a characteristic of the human species: abyssal communication skills,” he observes.

Van Pelt’s multi-membered tale features several other characters whose lives are colored by loss. All of them turn out to be basically nice, likeable people, though it takes us a while to care about Cameron Cassmore, a 30-year-old bum from Modesto, Calif., whose main talent seems to be messing around. at the top. He is grateful to his aunt Jeanne, who raised him after his drug-addicted single mother abandoned him when he was 9. Cameron wants to make his aunt proud, but, while clearly smart, he can’t help but sabotage himself – and blame him. on his mother. Desperate to succeed, he borrows money to head north to Sowell Bay in pursuit of a wealthy man who may be his father.

Other characters include a gossip-prone but well-meaning Scottish-born grocery store owner. He is smitten with Tova, but she has no plans to come out after the loss of her husband of 48 years. There’s also a young single mother who, unlike Cameron’s mother, has managed to not only provide a secure upbringing for her son, but also run a successful business selling paddle boards.

“Remarkably Bright Creatures” requires a willingness to throw disbelief overboard. The various narrative strands intertwine in somewhat improbable ways, but not as improbably as a literate octopus’s skill at detective work. But if you can swim with it, Van Pelt has spawned a heartwarming story about the importance of reaching out with open arms to make meaningful connections. I’m a sucker for happy endings, and this one, bringing a group of lonely strangers into the equivalent of a big communal hug, has considerable charm.

Heller McAlpin regularly edits books for the Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and NPR.

Irene B. Bowles