There seems to be a trend at the moment for contemporary real-life issues-based YA carrying meaningful messages. Which sounds a little cynical, but if the story is handled as skillfully and sensitively as this one, then it’s all good. Novels like The Benefits Of Being An Octopus open eyes to other people’s lives, develop empathy and understanding, and change the world one small step at a time.
Zoe is one of the invisible, marginalized by poverty. She’s a seventh grader living with her mum, three younger sibs and mum’s boyfriend Lenny in Lenny’s nice clean trailer, much better than their previous place. The writing is very clever and subtle. It gradually becomes clear to the reader, though not at once to Zoe, that Lenny is domineering and a bully. It’s an unusual but important depiction of the ways in which one person can abuse another: because the abuse is emotional, not physical, it’s insidious, not obvious and yet deeply destructive. Zoe’s mum has lost all confidence or clear sense of herself. Even Zoe, at the start, is ashamed of what a mess her mum has become.
Zoe and her friend Fuschia fly under the radar at school, invisible to the jocks, the cool and rich kids, which is the way Zoe likes it; until one day a teacher starts taking an interest in her and forces her to join the debating club.
One of Zoe’s assignments, which for once she manages to complete amidst the chaos of childminding and no personal space, is on the octopus; she is fascinated by its many defence and survival strategies, and imagines herself as an octopus finding ways to navigate the chaos that is her life. The metaphor is sustained quite imaginatively and beautifully throughout.
The story develops around Zoe’s problematic association with the debating club, and her growing awareness that her mum is being abused. She is a great character, shy yet strong, human, dignified, engaging and totally believable.
The resolution is not perfect, but plausibly open-ended. There are no easy solutions for the very poor. But, Zoe has found a way to steer her family to a kind of safety, where they can be emotionally whole again, and that demands our respect.
A great book that needs to be read. Five stars.
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