This review will come in two parts, this is the analysis post, the other is to come later this afternoon!!
You may know there are a few topics that will immediately endear me to a book, and a combination of such will make me love it. And then there’s the special few that put a fire in my heart, mind and imagination.
My Friend the Octopus by Lindsay Galvin was an utter sheer delight from start to finish, and I didn’t want to walk away from Vinnie’s 1890s Brighton with its cusp of halcyon coming of age themes.
But more so because it totally ignited the geek in me, late Victorian era, historical fashion and social history wrapped up with the experience of women and working women in this past.
And furthermore inspired a great undertaking of creativity.
Lavinia has a good life, her mother is a sought after milliner, and busy socialite always bringing her daughter in tow, until this time it seems.
One night she is awoken by her mother and bundled into a train and unceremoniously dumped on her late father’s cousin whilst her mother will travel to Paris to study the latest couture.
Lavinia is intrigued with this bicycling, bloomer wearing, modern woman ‘aunt’ but more so by the giant octopus about to be launched in the aquarium.
But as the summer rolls on and it’s not just the heat that’s uncomfortable, dark truths come to the light and reframe everything Lavinia knows.
Being Mother’s constant companion meant that I was never really alone, and the thought of finding my own way to the aquarium filled me with new dismay, mainly at myself. I now realised I’d got to twelve years old utterly ill-equipped to deal with this adventure.
When I read the first chapters I had immediate contextual spoilers in that I knew what was likely to happen based on my historical and biological knowledge. In fact if you’ve watched a certain documentary you will also ‘know’ one part and you will cry again. But still this makes no matter because it is a fantastic tale.
This knowledge didn’t ‘spoil’ anything in fact it was like a small nod ‘ I see you’ to my geeky heart and allowed me to feel like I was sharing this secret knowledge with the world as Vinnie uncovers the truth and pulls back the veil on the realities and what must wither and die for the privileged to be fashionable and entertained .
Galvin takes us into the greatly lauded Victorian era, which we all have a relationship with that’s akin to a distant cousin, you know it’s there but mostly you couldn’t say much about it if pushed other than a few well seasoned tropes and Dickensian references.
Galvin gently helps the the reader into that space in between, the dark underbelly of social history and the experience and abuse of working class people especially women and children sacrificed to the engine of British success and splendour, alongside the burning engine room of thought, creativity and change stoked hot with literature, revolution and inventions.
I crouched and ran my fingers through the sand, cold, gritty, silky.
The book is set in 1893 and the 1890s are probably my favourite decade of this era, not simply for its is power sleeves and the birth of the Gibson Girl, but the fact that this is a time of bubbling revolution in thought, where the Liberals had gasping Christmas Carol moments of guilty insights into the horrors of particularly urban working class life after studies by Booth meant they could no longer just ignore and blame it on laziness, and set upon a series of reforms that would drag Britain into the next century and form the bedrock for Labour to build upon 50 odd years later in social responsibility, welfare, pensions and education for children.
Blood and Glory
But we are fools to think that these are quite the golden days that some portray the late Victorian era. Galvin starts a conversation with the reader about colonialism (including psychological as in the elite British perception they own the world and everything in it) , possession, rights and consent through the lifecycle of a giant octopus.
We peek beyond the pomp and circumstance, the veil and silk petticoats to the violence and arrogance that British elitism and colonialism wreaked upon both the human and natural world, strip mining it of assets and profits with no mind to culture, habitat or humanity.
Furthermore there is discussion of white saviourism in the arts and as a pet hobby misinterpreted as philanthropy as we see Temitayo is dressed as a doll and paraded before ‘nice ladies’ to touch her hair and applaud neatly for her talents who remark how much she owes to a woman who she didn’t even know long enough to remember but how she is reaching her sell by date as the afternoon tea ‘spectacle’ of a learned African is cute when she is little but racism reveals this so threatening when she becomes a teenager.
And then a giant creature, seized from its habitat and lauded as a monster to draw in the crowds to please the bottom line and show the glory of British power over dominion.
A Trilogy of Pain and Suffering.
There is echoes and reflections in the circumstances of Ghost, Temitayo and Vinnie
‘Trapped in Beautiful prisons but with everything they need provided for them.’
Temitayo has been stolen from her culture , family and heritage as has Ghost,
But equally Vinnie has been sheltered from the world by her mother, used a cheap labour in the shop to design l, dressed and infantilised as a girl of 12/13 to be a cutesy Shirley Temple like figure – although like Temitayo Vinnie is equally starting to be tiring on her mother as a source of entertainment as she gets older and asks questions.
But equally Ghost provides a metaphor and experience that can explore the role and importance of good parenting, we can choose to neglect like Temitayo’s adoptive father, to control and manipulate like Vinnie’s mother or to do everything possible, to give their children the best start possible.
But also the tale unpacks at the understanding of the crushing weight of heritage and of belonging to a group of people, or being descended directly from those who cause harm.
That we can close our eyes to it and be sensitive and fragile when these terrible things are brought up in discussion or we can be honest, boldly look the truth in the face and by scrutinising it, learn the causes and consequences of the mistake and make up for these wrongs, and to swear if never quite able to make amends to do our damned best not let it ever happen again.
Now without letting too much go about the book, Galvin has clearly put a LOT of research into the clothing, with the right shapes, trends, colours and textiles being referred to throughout the novel.
And that got me inspired. I love the silhouette of the 1890s whether the smooth shirtwaist combined with puffy leg of mutton power sleeve or the changes to womenswear and lives brought about by both the impact of the Gibson Girl (which was based on the illustrators young wife and her friends ) and sportswear trends which are explored through Aunt Bets with her bicycling bloomers, tiny hats and striped linen skirts.
Equally the Victorian period is just as rife as today with the true cost of being fashionable, and the tale within is only a marker of how little we have truly come from that era, how fast fashion and stressful working conditions has replaced dangerous production methods as the dark secrets of fashion.
And so I wanted to explore the story of clothes in My Friend the Octopus through Bookbounding or cosplay. Which will be revealed in a separate post because- well we all know I’m verbose.
Please check out My Friend the Octopus, I’m absolutely in love with this book and it’s such a stealthily educational book, and an important one, as without people standing up for the rights of working class people, we would still be back there.
My Friend, the Octopus by Lindsay Galvin is published by Chicken House.