Is it possible to fall in love with an octopus?

If you thought you could be one of the last people on earth, how would you behave? That’s the test Claire Fuller puts on the narrator of her new novel ‘The Memory of Animals’, which is set in near-future London as a deadly virus descends on humanity. Nefeli, 27, nicknamed Neffy, has volunteered for a trial of a vaccine against the so-called Dropsy virus, and finds herself sequestered in the BioPharm facility, a kind of laboratory / dormitory, with a handful of ‘strangers also ready to risk everything.

“I could kid myself that I’m doing this to save the human race,” she says, “but honestly? I do it for the money. The money I owe the aquarium for their octopus. But no one does something so terrible just for the money, as another volunteer observes. (“There were always easier ways to make a few pounds.”) And then there’s this octopus, a creature Neffy got to know while employed at the aquarium, whose fate we we learn, is tied to his current situation – his desperate need for money, yes, but also the grief and guilt that drives his decisions.

As those who swooned over the documentary “My Octopus Teacher” know, and as Neffy tells us, “it’s possible to fall in love with an octopus.” Neffy, it seems, learned this at a tender age, while snorkelling off a Greek island – where her father stayed when Neffy and her mother returned to London, setting up a childhood torn between the cold reality of England and the magical land of warmth and myth. Pursuing an octopus-adjacent career as a marine biologist and later as an aquarist (one who runs an aquarium), she discovered, with career-ending consequences, that caging or conducting experiments on octopuses is too cruel for her.

We learn much of this from a series of mysterious letters, addressed only to “H”, that Neffy composes while confined to the facility where the vaccine test is being carried out – and thanks to another device, Fuller cleverly works through the increasingly complicated relationships between the volunteers — at least what little is left once things go wrong. One of them, Leon, has devised a process for people to relive their memories (“Revisit”, he calls it – a kind of technological gibberish that we might as well believe, because after all, the world is ending), which works particularly well on Neffy. Under his spell, she inhabits past moments with her present understanding intact, an experience steeped in both elegiac joy and frustration.

Meanwhile, the virus mutates into an even more virulent variant, stranding trial participants at BioPharm’s facilities, halting the procedure, scattering staff, and leaving Neffy as the only one of five remaining volunteers to have received both the vaccine and the virus. …and survived.

After seeing gruesome scenes unfold on the streets below their windows and witnessing the trial collapse as Neffy hallucinates through the virus, the other four – a mixed cast of 20s who have never been vaccinated , and are therefore still susceptible to the virus – clearly know something they are hiding from her, even though they look to her, with her presumed immunity, to go out and stock up once their food and water run out. They also seem to have devised a plan for her, the only successfully vaccinated person in the world, to start producing immune children.

Imagine a “Lord of the Flies” which everyone on the island has opted for; or a “Breakfast Club” where whoever leaves dies: relationships form and warp and character wins. If you, like Neffy, were increasingly likely to be the last one standing, would you, like Neffy, be tender, kind and resourceful enough to inspire hope for humanity, literally, at the last minute? It’s a trick Fuller pulls off, weaving so many familiar threads, from the post-pandemic storyline to the extremities isolation storyline to the life story reimagined under duress, and yet delivering a promising new model – a performance of author to the height of its generous character.

Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, “World Like a Knife”.

Tin house. 277 pages. $27.95

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