Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures

Really—an octopus narrator? Yes, and it works! The reason, in a word, is: VOICE. (Aided, of course, by the fact that octopuses are “remarkably bright creatures.”)

We first meet Marcellus McSquiddles (who does not like the name that a human child gave him) in a very short and sweet chapter one, as he explains his captivity—inside an aquarium tank, tantalizingly close to Puget Sound—and defines quite specifically the time that remains in his life as a Giant Pacific octopus: 160 days. He can count, and he can read; “I can do many things you would not expect.” That includes picking locks, reading fingerprints—and escaping from his tank when no one is looking. 

The first chapter is less than 500 words long, and it definitely leaves us wanting more… but after this introduction we move on to Tova, the 70-year-old woman who comes after hours to clean the aquarium. One evening, Tova finds Marcellus entangled in a charging cord, unable to return to his tank after a late night snack on abandoned takeout. Because she’s also a remarkable creature, Tova rescues him—and keeps his late-night wanderings a secret. She also begins to share her life story with Marcellus, through his tank’s glass, which she simultaneously tries to keep fingerprint-free. They develop a strong bond—especially once Marcellus realizes that a ring he found deep in the ocean, before he was captured, belongs to Tova’s drowned son.

I was eager to hear more from these two when Cameron, the third narrator, butted in; he’s a rather cardboard version of a down-and-out 30-year-old who decides to go in search of his father (if only to shake him down for child support). I kept reading, trusting the author to eventually connect his story back to the more intriguing original storyline… and soon I understood why we had to see the world through Cameron’s eyes as well. 

Though the story is somewhat predictable—and rather, um, fantastic, in all meanings of the word—the specificity of detail, especially when we’re wrapped up in the many legs of Marcellus, keeps it all surprisingly believable. We care what happens because of the unique richness of Marcellus and Tova’s relationship. Together, they deliver a satisfyingly full-circle ending, both in the big and small picture. I also learned a lot about the Great Pacific Octopus, though of course without more research I can’t be sure which “facts” are actually true. 

In the acknowledgments, author Shelby Van Pelt thanks the agent’s assistant who initially reviewed her query letter and then wrote in the margin to her agent-boss: “This is either brilliant or bananas.” I’m going with brilliant. I’d recommend this book to readers who enjoy realistic fantasy, a coastal setting, and of course the fresh perspective of a tale told by an octopus; truly a remarkably bright creature. 

Have you read a book lately that grabbed you unexpectedly? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send me an email. I read every single one, with gratitude.

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2 Replies to “Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures”

  1. Hi Carol….my reading backlog seems to grow exponentially over the months, but your column here intrigued me to read an online sample of this book and now I want it. Every brain needs stimulating and every heart needs tugging, so I thank you for your referral.

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