Entertainment | Book Review: 'The Penguin Lessons' by Tom Michell

"The penguin, meanwhile, was quite unperturbed by the dramatic appearance of the hound, and continued sniffing some wayside buttercups that had caught his attention"
The Penguin Lessons tells Tom Michell's true story of his time in 1970s Argentina as a twenty-something schoolteacher with a pet penguin, Juan Salvado. Having rescued Juan Salvado from a terrible oil spill, the pair form an unbreakable bond of friendship and what follows is a wonderfully charming tale.

With the novel being set in 1970s Argentina, I was cautious in approaching it as I sometimes find that books set in a historical period or place I don't know very well can sometimes wrongly assume the extent of the reader's knowledge. Thus, you can become utterly lost in passing references to not-so-obvious context. On the flip-side, there is also such a thing as too much exposition and I'm sure that reading a book that over-explains every piece of historical context gets quite dull to anyone knowledgeable on it. With this book however, Michell struck a brilliant balance. I wasn't inundated with details about Argentinian history, but just the right amount of context was given to enhance the telling of the tale.
If there's one thing I'll avoid like the plague as a history student, it's economic history. The moment the author mentioned hyperinflation I had an imminent fear that the next twenty pages would be a painful ramble about the complexities of a collapsing economy. But luckily, I was saved such a fate by Michell's clear understanding that people do not open up a book about a penguin in order to learn economics.

I had left him in the bath and on my return to the bathroom he ran up and down the tub, flapping his wings. His little eyes were sparkling... Had he been a dog he would have been wagging his tail.

One of the things that made this book so endearing was the fact it was a true story. It takes away accusations of it being "far-fetched" and also makes it lovely to know that this penguin touched the lives of real people. Such a rare story here made for a rare gem of a book. A biography that reads like a novel in the best possible way.
One thing I really loved was how detailed but concise all of Michell's descriptions were, and how beautifully crafted the prose was. I could really envision everything playing out like a film in my head, which I personally find quite rare in my reading (perhaps I'm unimaginative). I do think this would make a wonderfully charming film, perhaps with an actor such as Ben Whishaw as the lead.

I naturally wanted to see how he would manage descending, so I ran back down the stairs. Without hesitation he launched onto his belly and tobogganed, bump, bump, bump, down the flight of stairs at great speed, landing on the polished marble floor at the bottom in that prone position. He came to a sliding stop and stood up.

Just as the penguin captured the heart of everyone it met, so too did it capture mine and, I can only assume, that of many other readers. I usually try my best to include both good and bad in my book reviews and whilst I'm sure the book wasn't wholly perfect, I cannot find any real complaint with it myself. I really was taken on a wonderful journey across those 206 pages, and I rather wish I had a penguin for a best buddy too.

You'll enjoy this book if you enjoy reading:
Historical fiction; historical non-fiction; biography; books about animals; books about travel
Or, if you're interested in:
20th-century South American politics, 20th-century South American history, environmental concerns, animal conservation, animal behaviour, penguins, adorable things

Thank you for reading my review! I hope you enjoyed it and didn't find it too gushy. As always I love reading each and everyone of your comments, and I'd love to know if you've read this book or anything similar!