Book Review: The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness

Sy Montgomery

Atria Books

2015

“Perhaps none of these definitions [of soul] is true. Perhaps all of them are. But I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew: If I have a soul—and I think I do—an octopus has a soul, too.” (228)

If you’re in the mood for a good read, one that is deeply philosophical and emotional but also steeped in accurate science, look no further than Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. Montgomery approaches the study of marine biology with a strong desire to connect with animals, particularly the octopus. She is also a seasoned journalist who bolsters her personal observations with a wealth of scientifically-based evidence.

Given her background in travel and wildlife journalism, it’s no wonder that Montgomery can spin touching stories about her encounters with the mysterious and highly intellectual octopus with as much substance as an expert on cephalopods could. She has even been described as “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson” by The Boston Globe.

The Soul of an Octopus is a non-fiction novel that reads like an autobiography. Its characters are both human and octopus. The story covers the period of Montgomery’s life during which she meets four different female octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston. And I mean different - through the eyes of the author, each of these octopuses, named Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma, has a unique personality. Her relationships with these lovely ladies are chronicled over the span of a year and a half. The people she meets during this time are just as important to her as the octopuses, and readers can see that a very eclectic group of people, each with their own problems, milestones and hopes, are brought together by their shared love of the octopuses and the aquarium that houses them.

This novel has the touch of a deep-immersion journalist. It’s well-researched – Montgomery travels to various locations to interact with octopuses in the wild and even learns to Scuba dive in her fifties. There’s a surprising amount of scientific content included, and it’s woven effortlessly into the story line. There are some points in the novel when Montgomery’s dedication to accuracy is a little overbearing, but this is rare.

The Soul of an Octopus is what I would consider a great science-based narrative written by someone who is not a trained scientist. Sy Montgomery proves that curiosity and an emotional connection with an organism can fuel great research and life experiences.