This review does not contain spoilers but may indirectly refer to some events contained within the novel
There was another Phoebe. A long-haired miniature dachshund who came to live with my family when I was thirteen, who died almost three years ago one sticky, dense August. I happened to have an assessment with a therapist that day and I broke down in the middle of it, not because of anything I’d made the appointment for but because earlier that day Phoebe had died at the vet’s office in my father’s arms, and I was halfway down the country, too far away to see her one last time.
“I don’t know why I’m crying,” I said to the therapist as she pushed a box of tissues towards me and gave me a sympathetic smile, “We’ve had loads of dogs die. I should be used to it by now.”
My family has never not had pets, with dogs in particular a constant feature in my life. By the time I’d left home, we’d had six dogs, a cat, four hamsters, and three guinea pigs, and lost all but three of the dogs. Loss became a solid feature of my childhood; my parents, on reading this, may be upset to hear that but I maintain it was a thoroughly good lesson to learn. Most of what I know about relationships and empathy and responsibility – ultimately, about caring for other people (which I have made into a living) – I learned from having pets.
For me, home is the key in the door followed a split-second later by frantic barking. I can’t imagine the usual hug from my mum not being accompanied by unseen scratching at my lower legs. So, as someone who avoids the Dogs Trust appeals because the mere thought of an unhappy dog pushes me to tears, Lily & The Octopus was always going to be a hard read.
There were unfortunate parallels between Lily and Phoebe, which meant I spent at least a third of the book having a quiet cry (or, in Lily-speak, MAKING! SALTY! EYE! RAIN!). They were both the runts of their litter, not suitable for showing and not the breeder’s choice. They each had an endearing mix of canine joie de vivre and dachshund stubbornness. They both battled their own octopus, suffering the same ill-effects while their desperate owners tried to fight for them.
Phoebe was a little princess, surprisingly vain for a species I wasn’t sure had a strong concept of self, and an absolute trouble-maker. If Phoebe was quiet and out of the room, she was up to something, and that something was silently and systematically emptying the kitchen bin, a spy looking for scraps. But she was sweet, too, and I remember her curling up next to me on the sofa as I cried after a bad day at school, many times.
Phoebe’s final few months were a patchwork of new behaviours with nefarious sources. When I first saw her plough into the sofa leg, I laughed, mostly from shock. At the time it was a more favourable alternative to crying, but when we guided her away from rocks with our voices on her last few walks I remember a cold, numb dread, knowing what was coming but not when.
She was one of my favourite dogs. Adopting her name is my small way of bringing her with me on my writing journey.
The chances are high that you will outlive your pet, and in our more rational moments we might wonder why we bother to have them at all, whether the inevitable pain is the right price to pay. Lily & The Octopus not only answers that question, it makes the mere asking of it irrelevant. Pets are more than the hairy, sometimes smelly creatures we choose to let into the house. They are even more than comfort or companionship. They are parts of us we don’t acknowledge or cannot express, a release valve for everything we store up throughout the day, opening with a sigh when that familiar flurry of legs hurtles towards the front door or springs to life at the smell of food, the sight of a ball. They are confirmation that you matter, you are important, you are worthy of love, whether you feel it or not.
Pets are a wholly selfish yet selfless act, a bizarre concept from far away that makes perfect sense up close.
Our dachshund, Poppy, is getting older, slower. She will have her own creature to fight and we’ll be ready for it, like we always are, knowing how the story ends. It doesn’t get any easier, and nor should it, but what stuck with me from Lily & The Octopus is a reassurance of what I already knew: every second – good, bad, infuriating, or hilarious – is worth it. Every single one.
Lily & The Octopus is a rare novel in that it seamlessly blends a semi-fantastical world, where dogs talk and parasitic cephalopods shape-shift at will, with sharp yet necessary truths about every aspect of pet ownership. Closing the book after the final page left me with a sense of serene acceptance that I have struggled to find after the loss of previous pets.
Phoebe was a good dog. I think she and Lily would have gotten along.
Lily & The Octopus by Steven Rowley is released in the UK on Thursday 14th July (Simon & Schuster). Although the book was gifted to me from Simon & Schuster, all thoughts, opinions, and pet-based nostalgia are purely my own.