For the deep sea octopus, motherhood heralds a lengthy and ultimately lethal hunger strike. She’ll breed just once, and her eggs will require much of the energy she has slowly acquired during her long life in order to survive. She guards them until they hatch and won’t allow trivial matters like eating to distract her from her duty. Development is slow in the frigid depths, and by the time her babies swim free, four and a half hungry years have passed. The skin sagging around her shrunken frame has slowly lost all pigment, leaving her a ghostly white facsimile of her former hunting self, ready to die.
Sabrina Imbler, who uses they/them pronouns, lures us into the life of this eight-limbed underwater martyr with infectious curiosity. Then they do something quite different, telling us about their own starving mother, and the eating disorder they inherited from her. The entwined storylines mirror one another: we join the young Imbler being escorted to a weight-loss clinic by their mother, and in the next paragraph the deep sea octopus refuses to be force-fed by a robot submarine.
“In the deep sea, everything starves. Space is depthless and barren,” Imbler writes. As their own family story unfolds we discover how their mother, a first-generation Chinese immigrant to the US, chased thinness in order to fit in to her hostile new home. The sudden change of focus forces the reader to examine preconceptions about maternal sacrifice and generational trauma.
Each of the 10 essays in Imbler’s astonishing debut juxtaposes a strange lifeform from the deep with an episode from their own existence as a mixed-race, non-binary American. In How to Draw a Sperm Whale, their first romantic relationship is set alongside the accidental slaying of a whale – with each requiring its own protracted postmortem. In Pure Life, they describe the tenacious oddities that make each other’s existence possible via symbiosis in the scalding chemical soup around deep-sea hydrothermal vents. This is married with the story of Imbler’s arrival in a new city after leaving college, and their desperate search for a queer community “that warmed me until I tingled”.
The effect is transcendent. It is a fusion of science and memoir, and the nearest point of comparison that occurs to me is Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. Imbler’s book is an exquisite and indefinable hybrid – much like the crossbred butterfly fish they compare themselves to – that is far greater than the sum of its parts. It delivers remarkable facts about a host of marine curiosities, whose otherworldly lives illuminate Imbler’s own queer coming-of-age tale.
As someone who has had the luxury of taking their identity for granted, it was the exposing authenticity of Imbler’s personal journey that gripped me most. The descriptions of their fluctuating sense of gender, their desire to transform their body and the joy of finding their queer family were lyrical and profound.
Among the revelation, there is darkness too. Imbler’s first sexual experiences are accompanied by descriptions of the terrifying bobbit worm, a phallic predator “as long as a man” with jaws like scissors. These encounters are characterised by binge-drinking, blackouts and assault, allowing Imbler to ponder the nature of consent and the invisibility of the victim.
At a time when humanity is destroying natural abundance and failing to understand its own diversity, a book like Imbler’s is a valuable gift. Their creativity and candour bridge the empathy gap by demanding imaginative participation. We are invited into unseen worlds where the survivors of 4bn years of evolution and all the messiness of life “glitter, together, in the dark”.
• My Life in Sea Creatures is published by Chatto (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.