Book Review: The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

Book Review: The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

The Penguin Lessons is a warm and unique story about an unlikely friendship between a man and a penguin, and fond memories of a long-ago trip to South America.

In his early twenties, Tom Michell sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a trip abroad to teach English in a school in Argentina and he takes it without thinking twice. Completely immersed in a radically different culture, he begins to explore South America full of wild enthusiasm and a sense of long-suppressed adventure. It is on an expedition to Uruguay that he encounters Juan Salvador the penguin.

Travelling to the coast, Michell comes across a flock of dead penguins on a beach as a result of an oil spill. Horrified, he spots a solitary waving wing, and comes to the rescue of Juan Salvador. He proceeds to smuggle him across the Argentinian border and back to the school, where the penguin becomes an instant celebrity. 

What follows the fateful meeting of man and penguin is a collection of vignettes about life in the school for Juan Salvador, and his relationships with those around him. Life for the feisty penguin in the school revolves around a happy routine as he takes residence in a sunny terrace and enjoys the pleasure of company from staff and student alike. 

Although sometimes it feels slightly stretched, Michell ties Juan Salvador into pivotal moments in the lives of students and friends. The result is a warm collection of tales from a cherished time in the authors life, and reading them has the potential to inspire nostalgia, however vicariously. Reading about Juan Salvador as he becomes school mascot, swims like an Olympian in the school pool, and lends a friendly ear to the gossiping housemaids, it’s hard not to wish you were there.

Although this book is primarily a memoir based entirely on individual experience, Michell attempts to tie in certain elements into the personal narrative – namely the turbulent political situation in South America, the unbalanced economy, and most relevantly, the environmental damage wreaked on wild animals by humans. While the wider political and economic observations are fleeting and sparse, they’re still interesting, and they surround a lovely story about a remarkable trip to the other side of the world and a gorgeous friendship between one man and his penguin.

The Penguin Lessons (Michael Joseph) is out now in £9.99 hardback.