The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

Penguins are by far my favourite animal. Whether we are talking real, cuddly, book publisher, biscuit, in books, on TV or some other form there is something about them that I adore. It’s the sort of interest that can very quickly pull you towards something; in this case a book about penguins published by Penguin.

The thing that attracted me to the plot of The Penguin Lessons, apart from the obvious, is that it is a book based somewhat on a real life experience and the retelling of past events always tends to grab my attention. So often we can look back at a time and cast it to be either the most fantastic time in our life or one of the most catastrophic. Our memories are usually extremely polarising but this book serves up a mixture of the good, the largely mundane, the frustratingly bad and the odd bit of overwhelming panic as well and that serves as a welcome surprise.

The Penguin Lessons book

Even as the self-declared penguin lover that I am, there is a little uncertainly in my mind as to what I would do in the situation that leads on to the rest of the book. If I encountered a beach of dying penguins from an oil spillage would I have the stomach to go up, walk through, and then on identifying a survivor find a way to take it home for a massive clean up operation? It is something that many of us would not be able to manage but instead we would stand there desperately googling who to contact about the travesty, sharing pictures on social media with hashtags about the despair in humanity and just not having a clue about what products might be of use to immediately remove the oil slick from a poor penguin’s coating.

But after a frantic rescue mission, a dousing of household grease busters and some time there becomes an unlikely bond between human and penguin and before the reader knows it we’re getting transported with a penguin in a rucksack across South America to reside in a school. It’s certainly not the natural environment of a penguin and the strict routine of the school suggests that a penguin will not be welcomed on the premise but slowly routine is adapted and everybody comes to love having a penguin waddling around the ground and being perplexed by steps.

In many ways this book could easily be a love story. The treasured penguin brings out the confidence in a shy boy to thrive at swimming and makes him loved by his peers. The confident penguin becomes a struggling sports team mascot. The quiet penguin provides a good ear for a cleaner at the school that is desperate to share her thoughts and dilemmas with another in confidence. The relatively young and middle-class man from the UK that suddenly experiences many life lessons and needing to grow up with having a penguin to look after.

On the whole it is, without doubt, this book being about penguins that wins it for me. There were moments when the writing was a little dry, when the movement of it all seemed a little slow and how certain sequences were forced into the book to make it seem for a more rounded piece. Of course, there were emotional moments ranging from sorrow to delight and the desire to woop with joy and I would not say that it was a bad book but it simply didn’t reach the range of the greatest reads of the year.

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