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R&V Reflections: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Image Courtesy of Avalon Book Library

I find myself connecting with non-human beings all of the time these days, and not just my two exasperatingly adorable Westies—I say hello to the fish in our aquarium. I greet the shy groundhog in our yard. I talk softly to the disabled doe and her two fawns as they wander through our yard. When the squirrels taunt my dogs with their tails right outside our living room window, I wave back.

There was a time when I connected with a heron as I crossed Wolf Creek on my morning commute. My heron—and it felt like “my” heron—seemed to always be there when I needed him—I am almost sure it was a “he”—an entity that sensed my emotional state and responded in kind, soaring by me when I felt low and alone, standing resolute when I felt shifty, present even, somehow, in his absence, as if his absence was only a promise that he’d be back again tomorrow.

Maybe these are mind games we humans play, anthropomorphising creatures with traits we want to see in them. But Izzy, the stately, elder Westie in our home, and Ruby, the rambunctious, anxious puppy, clearly each have distinct personalities. Big Al in our fish tank exhibits his own particularities and preferences. 

Even an octopus in an aquarium can have its quirks. All of these creatures are seeking connection and community in some way or the other, not unlike our own species.

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

The debut novel by Shelby Van Pelt, Remarkably Bright Creatures, explores what happens when the life of an octopus intersects with the life of an elderly woman janitor in an aquarium. 

Van Pelt’s book differs from Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, which we reviewed here last year, and the critically acclaimed My Octopus Teacher, a film I recommend to anyone who has a soul. Unlike these nonfiction and documentary approaches to the mysterious and wondrous life of an octopus, Van Pelt invites us into the mind of Marcellus, an aging giant Pacific octopus who has been rescued out of Puget Sound after a near life-ending injury. 

The dry-witted, curious, and curmudgeonly Marcellus now lives in the Sowell Bay Aquarium, which is where he meets Tova Sullivan, the elderly janitor who cleans the aquarium every evening. Tova is a widow, whose son died tragically and mysteriously decades ago, leaving her mostly alone, except for her close network of aging friends.

Throughout the book, Van Pelt toggles back and forth between the point of view of Marcellus and the perspectives of her human characters, who all seem to long for connection but struggle, whether out of grief, stubbornness, or trauma. Through Marcellus, mysteries are solved and connections are forged that just wouldn’t have been possible without the intervention of a wise, slippery invertebrate.

Our Need for Connection Runs Deep

Image: Diane Picchiottino

Every time I turn around, scientists are discovering something new that confirms this truth: relationship is everything. This reality is ancient and essential to the entire planet’s existence. But somehow, humans keep forgetting it.

If we stop and listen even for a few minutes, the plant and animal world reminds us.

Right now, I’m writing on my deck, which is nested in the middle of the woods. The birds are so loud here today that you might think I lived in the center of a bird sanctuary, but no—it’s migration season, and everyone is just passing through. The Tufted Titmouse, Tennessee Warbler, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, American Robin, Blue Jay, House Sparrow, and Mourning Dove are rehearsing a symphony of communal living in my backyard (and that’s just in the last three minutes—thanks Merlin Bird App!).

Over the din of this chorus, someone is mowing a lawn. Our next-door neighbor can’t seem to stand his dog. According to the Surgeon General, the United States is experiencing a loneliness epidemic: “Approximately half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with some of the highest rates among young adults.”

Relationships are critical to our existence.

Even non-sentient beings are in relationship with other creatures, even of different species. Here’s just one example: We used to think that trees are fighting for resources in forests all bunched up like that. They probably thrive best when they’re given enough space. But it turns out the trees need each other, rely on each other, communicate with each other, and support each other. They’re relying on other species, like squirrels and birds and chipmunks, to bury their seeds. They’re relying on fungal networks to send signals through the underground web of roots. There are trees in Africa that rely on ants to scare away herbivores so they don’t consume all of their leaves.

This world is filled with other beings, all of whom get their being—are begotten—from one Holy Creator, who breathed the breath of life into every living thing and called it good. God put all of these creatures on one distinct planet to coexist and connect in complex relationships with each other, the continuation of all species interdependent on all other species. 

Adam may not have found a worthy companion from among the plants and animals in Eden, but he certainly found a community of interconnected creatures, who all rely on one another for their existence. 

The more we turn to our plant and animal neighbors, the more we discover how much God has written into creation about his own nature, character, and what he cares about. This “Big Book of Creation” has so much to say about the importance of relationship. 

Perhaps we ought to start listening.

Remarkably Bright Creatures is a beautiful debut novel that celebrates how relationships between people and connections with our non-human neighbors can bring healing and wholeness into the microcosm that is our own small circles of existence.

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