The Soul Of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery

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Shooting Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1916 – the first motion picture filmed underwater, no less – J Ernest Williamson trembled: “No words can adequately describe the sickening horror one feels when from some dark mysterious lair, the great lidless eyes of the octopus stare at one… One’s very soul seems to shrink.” And the image of giant octopuses enveloping ships, pulling sailors to watery graves and generally being the writhing, eight-armed stuff of shivery nightmares has pervaded our culture. In The Soul of an Octopus, the American author and naturalist Sy Montgomery seeks to de-monsterise the intriguing creatures. And it’s testament to some fine writing that by the end, stroking an octopus’s head or getting a “love bite” from one of its 1,600 suckers seems downright desirable.

Where Montgomery really convinces the squeamish is not in show-and-tell encounters with various octopuses but in her quest to try and know this misunderstood “alien”. She discovers they’re highly intelligent, capable of tenderness, playfulness, happiness and friendship. All of which are recognisably human characteristics, of course, and Montgomery is well aware of the dangers of anthropomorphising. But she’s firmly in the camp that believes animal science should allow for thoughts, feelings and personality. As the person who designs the complex puzzles for the octopuses to solve tells her: “Octopuses have their own intelligence that we can’t match.”

And, she learns, their alternative reality does seem to have a real effect on the people who look after or study them. They begin to approach their own lives differently, more thoughtfully. In trying to describe this Montgomery’s prose occasionally lapses into the florid. When Athena, the first octopus she encounters, bobs to the surface “the look in the eyes of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses: serene, all-knowing, heavy with wisdom stretching back beyond time”.

But one can forgive Montgomery this because of her genuine zeal for her subject. With many moments of comedy, drama and even tragedy, this many-tentacled book, like Philip Hoare’s Leviathan, or the Whale or Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, refreshes our relationship with an entire biological order.

The Soul of an Octopus is published by Simon & Schuster (£8.99). Click here to buy it for £7.19

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