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    Editors’ Picks: Remarkably Bright Creatures

    Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures portrays how rich life can be when we nurture meaningful connections with one another.

    By Amy Parilee Rickards

    December 5, 2023
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    Some chapters of Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures, are narrated by Marcellus, a curmudgeonly old giant Pacific octopus living in an aquarium in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. The opening lines of the book reveal that Marcellus longs to live once again at the bottom of the sea, by the “untamed currents of the cold open water,” instead of in captivity. Marcellus is a fascinating narrator. His wit, sarcasm, and keen observation of the humans around him are delightful and sharply accurate. Throughout the book, Marcellus is surrounded by characters who, like him, are displaced and lonely. Like the octopus in Ringo Starr’s “Octopus’s Garden,” Marcellus “knows where we’ve been,” and with his helpful prodding, a mystery unfolds throughout the course of the novel.

    While the book opens from Marcellus’s perspective, Van Pelt soon introduces the reader to the human character Tova Sullivan. Tova is a septuagenarian who cleans the Sowell Bay aquarium at night to keep busy while grieving the recent loss of her husband. The reader quickly finds out Tova is no stranger to keeping busy as a coping mechanism, something she has done for the past thirty years since her eighteen-year-old son Erik mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound. The first sentence describing this strong character reads, “Tova Sullivan prepares for battle.” Here is a woman of action who also knows about war. Although the specific context here is her war against uncleanliness in the aquarium, the reader soon learns that Tova’s real battle is her own struggle with the deep and lingering losses in her life.

    At the beginning of the novel, Tova finds Marcellus, who has escaped from his aquarium tank and is trapped and tangled in cell phone charging cords. She rescues the octopus, gently untangling him and placing him back in his enclosure, beginning an unlikely friendship between the elderly woman and the elderly octopus. Another unlikely friendship, which involves an untangling of a different kind, develops between Tova and Cameron Cassmore. Cameron is a stereotypical millennial seeking to find his place in a world that, like Tova’s, has been marked by great loss. Cameron finds himself as Tova’s replacement, cleaning at the aquarium after she takes a fall. Cameron can be crass and rough, but in the gentle unwinding of his grief, Van Pelt creates a captivating, nuanced character readers will feel privileged to know.

    Van Pelt’s writing is as delightful and surprising as the unique twist of her octopus narrator. Despite the heavy subject matter of grief and loss, there is a determined hopefulness woven into the story. It is a book about unexpected friendships, finding hope in the midst of grief, and celebrating remarkably bright creatures – both human and aquatic. Van Pelt beautifully portrays how rich and joyful life can be when, even in the face of loss or feeling lost, we find and nurture meaningful connections with one another – and perhaps with some of God’s other remarkable creatures.

    Contributed By AmyRickards Amy Parilee Rickards

    Amy Parilee Rickards is an English instructor and book reviewer.

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