Postal Reading group
December 2021
Notes on the book Away with the penguins by Hazel Prior

Away with the penguins is Hazel Prior’s second book, and on the basis of first appearances, it would appear to be significantly different from the author’s previous book. If, as one of the book’s characters suggests “you can never have too many penguins”, then this might be the book for you! Although not motivated solely by the penguins, I do have an interest in Antarctica because it is such a fragile and important ecosystem, and was therefore interested to read this.

The basic story is that Veronica McCreedy lives alone and rarely speaks to anyone except for her cleaner and gardener. As her thoughts turn to the question of where to leave her substantial wealth on her death, she first makes attempts to make contact with any surviving relations. Although she is intrigued to discover that she has a grandson, she is less than impressed when she meets him for the first time. Having watched a television documentary on the precarious future facing a colony of Adele Penguins in the South Shetland Islands, she thinks that the scientific project studying the colony might be a worthy beneficiary. Veronica simply needs to visit Antarctica to make sure.

The main points in favour of this book are that it is an easy and light-hearted read while promising a feel-good read with a happy ending. For those who want more from a book, it’s got lots of penguins in it; a point which really is being used as a recommendation by several reviewers. Conversely, it’s a relatively simple plot which is all too predictable, and incredibly far-fetched. While I can understand why many do seem to enjoy this book, on balance it didn’t really appeal to me. Although I was interested by the idea of a novel set in Antarctica, and I could understand that the penguin project would be a worthy, if slightly quirky, recipient of Veronica’s wealth, it was the extremely unlikely plot which really spoilt the book for me.

Whilst this probably says something about me, and that my interest in Antarctica is a largely scientific one, I believe that realism is important in a book like this. Of course, books which are pure fantasy are a very different case, where readers would expect to suspend their incredulity. Last month’s Terry Pratchet book would seem to be a good case in point: you expect it to be fantastical, but the author nevertheless made a great effort to make a coherent world within those limits. By contrast, in a contemporary genre such as this I would expect more realism, instead we have the main characters taking a trip to Antarctica almost as you might book a last-minute cheap flight. In the case of Patrick he didn’t even purchase suitable clothing first! To put this in context, the national scientific research programs in Antarctica don’t even like supporting well-planned amateur expeditions.

Beyond this, the basic plot was all too predictable. While, at first, the main characters were both rather unlikeable, you knew that there was going to be a reconciliation later in the book. Similarly, while Veronica clearly takes advantage of the maxim that “age hath its privileges”, you know that there has to be a reason behind that, just as Patrick had an unfortunate past leading him to try recreational drugs. In many respects, Patrick is a very convenient character: it is because of his behaviour that Veronica decides to support the penguin project in the first place. Similarly it is because of his desire to move on from a disastrous relationship that he makes that unlikely trip out to Antarctica, while his hidden talents help to win over the scientists and enable Veronica act as the matchmaker.

I also wondered what point the author was trying to make in this novel, and I can only assume that they were trying to explore the increasing problem of loneliness in our society. Both main characters lived on their own and had few meaningful relationships, and even the scientists had made sacrifices for the sake of the penguins and the project. This could also be the connection with the author’s previous book, Ellie and the harp maker, which on the basis of the description, also features characters who enjoy few meaningful interactions with others.

In summary, although this book was an easy read, I found it difficult to enjoy, mainly because the plot was too far-fetched and predictable. While we can all enjoy a feel-good read with a happy ending from time to time, there must be plenty of better examples around. Some reviewers have made a comparison between Veronica in this book and A man called Ove. While we have all known, and can sometimes identify with, people like that, it does make for a predictable and slightly annoying read. If, on the other hand, the penguins are sufficient to rescue this book, then you might enjoy the sequel, Call of the penguins.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler