Published by Chicken House, 2022.
My Friend the Octopus is an incredible book and I couldn’t put it down. It’s set in Brighton in Victorian times and centres around the arrival of a giant octopus at the seafront aquarium. Lavinia (who prefers to be known as Vinnie) unexpectedly finds herself staying with her aunt in Brighton when her mother, a society milliner, has to leave London for Paris at very short notice. She soon makes friends with Charlie, the aquarium keeper’s nephew, and Temitayo, the African ward of an English gentleman.
My Friend the Octopus is children’s historical fiction at its best. Lindsay Galvin brilliantly evokes the Victorian era, encompassing fashion, leisure activities, attitudes to women, and the disparity between rich and poor. Victorian Brighton comes alive with its bathing huts, the aquarium, and Italian ice cream served in shells.
I was fascinated by the aquarium setting and loved discovering that this did actually exist. The book has wonderful fold out covers with a collage inside of Victorian postcards, illustrations and pamphlets depicting octopuses, and the Brighton Aquarium. I pored over these pages, relishing the historical detail.
The book also shines a spotlight on the terrible working conditions of industrial Victorian Britain, particularly in regard to child labour. In a series of dark scenes, we witness the true cost of high fashion.
At the heart of the book is the friendship between Vinnie, Charlie and Temitayo. I loved all three children – their resourcefulness, loyalty and strong sense of right and wrong. I particularly liked Temitayo’s ambition and her commitment to carving out her own path in life and not just accepting the staid and restrictive future that others had planned for her.
I also enjoyed the depictions of Mrs Fyfe (Vinnie’s mom) and Aunt Bets: two independent women who both run successful businesses and make their own way in the world, without men to support them.
Central to the story is the incredible octopus, Ghost. Lindsay Galvin shows us just how remarkable these creatures are. Capable of changing colour in the blink of an eye, copying pattern and detail in breathtaking ways, and expressing their mood through the colour of their bodies. We see Ghost as a feeling, thoughtful creature and I – like the characters in the book – became very attached to this amazing animal. The bond between Vinnie and Ghost is particularly touching.
Of all the characters in the book, Vinnie’s character arc is particularly satisfying. She develops from a timid young girl, who has had a very sheltered and controlled upbringing, into someone who is daring and self-confident, able to make her own choices and pursue her own interests.
I also enjoyed the contrast between Mrs Fyfe’s and Aunt Bets’s parenting styles. Mrs Fyfe is controlling and over-protective. She’s an overbearing mother with an unrealistic expectation for perfection. She also has very set ideas about what is right and proper for a young woman. By contrast, Aunt Bets has a much more forgiving approach, allowing space for Vinnie to learn and grow. She encourages Vinnie to just, ‘Get doing’ instead of being held back by the fear of making mistakes. What a liberating approach! With her, Vinnie is able to cast off some of society’s shackles – hurtling along on a bicycle, bloomers on show, or changing into her swimsuit behind a rock on the beach.
Running throughout the book is the mystery surrounding Mrs Fyfe’s disappearance. I enjoyed this aspect of the plot very much. Mr Jedders is a wonderfully sinister villain. And the plot twists relating to this part of the story were unexpected and brilliant.
My Friend the Octopus is one of the best books I’ve read all year and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Suitable for children aged 8+
Thank you to Chicken House for sending me this book to review.