Book Review: The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

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A review of The Penguin Lessons, written by Eduardo R. Garcia, Midwifery student

A foreign country in turmoil. An adventure. An unforgettable friendship.

The Penguin Lessons is a narrative told in first person by the author, Tom Michell, whose family members were distributed all over the world and inspired him with tales and stories about their discoveries, filling his imagination and making him familiar with these places. However, while this encouraged his adventurous spirit to take off, he was also moved by the desire to explore an unknown territory where his relatives had not been before, and hence why South America came as a perfect destination for his cause. Years later, during the 70s, an advertisement looking for staff in a Boarding School in Argentina would become his passage to his longed for adventure, fearless of the economic and political situation that whipped the country in the meantime.

What makes this personal journey especial is not only the wealth of insight into Argentina, its people and the description of a period that is long gone. The real core of the story is the friendship between Michell and Juan Salvador, or Juan Salvado: a penguin that our leading man rescued out of the jaws of death.

Michell’s action could have stayed as an anecdote in an otherwise more formal and serious narrative, however he decided to take the penguin under his arm and continue his travels, bringing Juan Salvado with him into the Boarding School, and making this the story of a lifetime. The bird, or the way that he is presented to us by Michell, makes us think of him as a character with his own personality and decision-making; he is a little fighter that serves as a main narrative thread, providing emotive and funny moments as this peculiar and almost fantastical relationship between bird and human develops.

Perfectly written, and unfolding wit and charm, Michell imagines the replies that Juan Salvado gives him through his eyes or actions, humanizing the character and making the readers understand his desire to protect the animal and why everyone around loves him, breaking the barriers that one could imagine as impregnable between a penguin and the human world. Because, at the end of the day, could a penguin belong with humans?

With the sensitivity of someone who has observed the damage that human actions could perpetrate in nature, the author inspires us to be considerate with the environment. Also, in reference to the title of the novel, Michell learns and demystifies knowledge and ideas about penguins, teaching us some tips in case, one day, we find ourselves in a similar situation and need to parent one of them.

Similar reads: Big Fish, Water for Elephants.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Penguin Lessons, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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