Sunday, October 13, 2019

Review: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

If you've ever loved a dog, you know the worry you feel as they get older and something out of the ordinary happens. Maybe they stop eating their food all in one go or they need to go outside much more frequently or they miss the bed when they try to jump up on it or they grow an unfamiliar lump. There might be easy and fixable reasons for these changes. They might just be a normal part of aging for your dog. Or they can be something more sinister, something that threatens this furry piece of your heart, this animal you love and who loves you back unconditionally. Losing them is not an option and so you bargain, you fight, you plead for your four-legged friend. Steven Rowley's Lily and the Octopus is this story, the story of one man and his aging dachshund, and the life and love they have shared for many years.

Ted is a middle-aged, gay man whose best friend is his dog Lily. He hasn't been altogether lucky in his quest for love and relationship with people but he loves Lily deeply and fiercely. He talks to her and she talks back to him. When he finds a lump on the side of Lily's head, he nicknames it the Octopus for the eight arms he feels in it. This aggressive thing becomes his adversary, another character that he talks to, that talks back to him. As the story moves forward, Ted tells of his life with Lily starting from the time she was just a tiny puppy, detailing his deep love for her, his often neurotic attachment, the ways in which she has impacted his life, and how she has been with him through so much of the good and bad in their twelve years together.

For most of the novel, this is a straightforward story but at a point about three quarters in, there is a dream sequence or magical realism piece that veers toward Ahab hunting the whale as Ted pursues the octopus. It is an odd intrusion into an otherwise simple story. Yes, Lily speaks to Ted throughout but that could simply be his anthropomorphizing her in his head as many dog owners do (maybe not quite to this extent). And the malevolent octopus argues with Ted, refusing to leave Ted and Lily in peace, but even that feels roughly believable until the long ocean chase. Ted and Lily's relationship is sweet but the way that her responses to him are handled in the text, in all caps, italics, and with each word followed by exclamation points quickly went from quirky to intrusive. The octopus's conversations with Ted are not rendered this way, making the reader wonder why they are handled so normally when Lily's are not. I really wanted to love this novel but I walked away from it thinking it was a strange thing. I too have learned lessons from the dogs of my life and I certainly didn't leave this book without tears in my eyes but the symbolism and stylistic choices just overwhelmed the story line in the end for me. Since I am in the minority in my opinion of this one, other dog lovers will probably enjoy it far more than I did though.

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