Book Review – Lily and the Octopus

Lily and the Octopus
Steven Rowley

Yes, a novel about a dog always results in the dog dying. That’s the Murphy’s Law of novels about dogs. In this case, Lily the dachshund is dying from the octopus on her head. So named because her owner Ted can’t bring himself to say the word tumour. But Lily is 12, has never been in great health, and the sad fact of life is that we usually outlive our pets.

Ted is having none of this however and part of his brain is convinced that if he just ignores the tumour, all will be well. Except of course, it isn’t and Ted eventually has to confront many things about his life, especially the fact that his dog has replaced most human interaction in his life (on Thursday Ted and Lily talk about cute boys, on Fridays they play Monopoly), and that as a single, freelance writer, still recovering from the end of a serious relationship, he doesn’t get out much.

Readers will note that Ted is kind of a selfish, self-centred dick. He begins avoiding Lily because he can’t face her illness – or the octopus on her head, which begins to talk. (In an interview Rowley admits that he imagined the voice of the octopus as Eddie Izzard’s. Do with that what you will.) He wonders why, at his sister’s wedding, people aren’t asking him about his sick dog. Meanwhile he seems unable to make a decision about Lily’s health/life – surgery and chemo are options, although not great ones for a senior dog, and it almost seems as if Lily suffers more for Ted’s inability to make a decision.

The story takes a weird turn when Ted takes Lily out to sea to fight and kill the octopus. Ted might need to lay off doing Valium and large quantities of vodka at the same time. It all gets a little Life of Pi, and ultimately, well, you know how these kind of stories end.

Having said that, Lily and the Octopus is probably my favourite read so far this year. I absolutely bawled my face off through most of it, even before Lily died, so it wasn’t that bit. Rather, I think Rowley really captures the fear and anxiety most pet owners feel during the life – and death – of their best friend. Ted loves Lily so much that he is petrified at the idea of hurting her, or losing her, to the point where he is frozen, unable to make good choices for himself or his dog. He makes the tumour into an octopus so as to avoid the inescapable truth, and his imagined battle with the sea creature is easier for him to consider than the fact that Lily is going to die from cancer.

Ultimately Ted grows from the experience of losing Lily; he finds closure not only to the loss of his beloved pet but to the end of an old relationship. He finds a more comfortable place within other relationships and is finally able to find the courage to start dating again.

Again, my favourite read so far this year, but pack some tissues because I dare anyone to get through this with a dry eye.