Like the sea dweller of its title, Tess Little’s debut novel is a multi-limbed creature, befuddling at times, which camouflages its true form until ready to reveal itself. Former actor Elspeth Bell is invited to her ex-husband Richard’s fiftieth birthday party in the Hollywood Hills. There are eight guests present, all faces from the past – a surprisingly small gathering for this powerful, well-connected film director. They include the quarrelling stars of his most recent film, a cinematographer whom Richard raised from music-video hell and bullies relentlessly, an old school friend, Richard’s boyfriend, and business partners old and new. Tensions simmer and boil accordingly. In the centre of the sunlit atrium where the guests are assembled, a Pacific octopus named Persephone floats in her tank. Elspeth narrates the story in three parts, moving between past and present with a dreamy, hallucinatory ease, taking in her childhood, marriage and the night of the party. The first two sections are elegant, somewhat protracted meditations on the slipperiness of perception and memory. In the third, the beat changes.
The night grows more bacchanalian; Elspeth and the other guests eventually pass out. When they wake on the cold floor of the atrium the next morning, Richard is dead. It could have been a heroin overdose: his lifelong struggles with addiction are well known. It could also have been murder.