After her husband’s death, Tova Sullivan took a job cleaning the Sowell Bay Aquarium. She works evenings after the aquarium has closed to the public, mopping the floors, clearing the trash cans, and cleaning the glass walls of the exhibition tanks until they shine. As she works her way around the circular building, she chats with the various occupants of the aquarium. She knows them all very well and while she believes it is pointless to carry on one sided conversations with them, it makes her feel less lonely while she is working.
Marcellus is the giant Pacific octopus at the Sowell Bay Aquarium. His full name is Marcellus McSquiddles, a name he finds preposterous because it implies that he is a squid, which he is NOT. Marcellus listens to and observes the many humans that visit the aquarium each day. He also observes the humans who work at the aquarium, recognizing their different positions and functions. He is fascinated by the diversity of the people he observes each day, but none so much as Tova. Marcellus enjoys the time he spends in her presence and the fact that she takes time each evening to share her thoughts with him. He knows that Tova is in pain over the recent loss of her husband and the earlier loss of her son. And Marcellus knows things about her son that he needs, somehow, to communicate to Tova. Marcellus is hopeful that, if he can tell her what he knows, then maybe, just maybe, he can be as good a friend to her as she has been to him.
In Remarkably Bright Creatures, debut author Shelby Van Pelt tells a quiet but compelling story about loss and grief, and how they affect us and how, if we’re lucky, we find the ability to move on with our lives. Van Pelt sets the story in a small tourist town in northern Washington and populates it with characters that are both interesting and immediately recognizable. The challenges they are facing, the loss of a spouse, the search for a parent, the grief over a lost child, and the search to find a place where they might be able to fit in after a lifetime of existing on the edges of others’ lives, are also universally recognizable. With grace, Van Pelt illustrates both how devastating these types of loss can be and how, even though it is difficult, one must, ultimately, move on.
As interesting as these humans are, the true star of Van Pelt’s debut is Marcellus, who is Irascible, ingenious, observant, and full of surprises. Marcellus’ running commentary on the humans around him, and their activities, are a joy to read. Van Pelt gives him free reign as he states things as he sees them, often lacking understanding for how and why humans behave the ways they do, but commenting nonetheless. She also allows him to be several steps ahead of the humans he’s observing, using him to foreshadow events that occur later in the novel.
Gentle, kind, and thoughtful, with moments of laugh out loud humor provided by Marcellus, Remarkably Bright Creatures is the perfect read for a realistic fiction reader looking for something just a bit special. But, be warned, after reading this book, you may feel the need to locate the closest local aquarium with a giant Pacific octopus, in residence, so you can make their acquaintance!
Read the interview with the author here.