I heard first about this book through the ever so fabulous Andrew Gillman and his splendid blog http://www.sparklyprettybriiiight.com/book-review-away-with-the-penguins-by-hazel-prior

His recommendations are always ones to take seriously. He warned me the main character would not be very likeable and he was right. It took a while to warm to Veronica, 86 year old woman who hates almost everyone and everything.

By chance she discovers a penguin research project in the Antarctica that all of a sudden gives her the sense of purpose.

Her recently discovered long lost grand son Patrick was a disappointment when she met him so she decides to check out said research station to see if they are more worthy to inherit her millions.

Once in the Antarctica she is challenged in many ways, physically and emotionally and more than the outside ice gets a crack and starts to melt.

As we discover more about Veronica’s past and background we see a different side to her. Old diaries and changing narrators cast extra light on to the story, then and now.

The book is quirky, well written and has a variety of odd and memorable characters. While some parts of the story are predictable, others aren’t, and they all are moving, heart warming and delightful.

I listened to this on audio book and enjoyed it much more than I had hoped for.

Here is more from Andrew’s post, who has such a great way with words: 

“Is it ever too late to change your life?

If you were to ask Veronica McCreedy at the start of Hazel Prior’s (Ellie and the Harp Maker) charmingly redemptive novel Away With the Penguins, you would likely receive a snappy, tart reply that “Of course it is! How could you think otherwise?”

The abrasive 86-year-old millionaire occupant of stately seaside mansion the Ballahays, Aryshire, Scotland, is a woman of stentorianly articulated firm opinions who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to say what she thinks.

Alone in the world after the death of her husband many years earlier and with no family to speak of and with only her assistant Eileen for company, Veronica is a woman who has fallen into some rather pronounced life habits than she is loathe to break.

Fastidious about her appearance to the point where she instructs Eileen to take down all the mirrors in the house, an instruction she revokes the next day when she forgets her orders from the day before – she is nimble and with it but her mind doesn’t always keep pace with her active body – Veronica is happiest munching on ginger thins and watching documentaries such as those on penguins with which she becomes obsessed (once she gets over the fact that they have supplanted her usual TV program of choice).

Her life is a very well-worn one that brooks no change and which seems destined to keep shuffling along without much to distinguish it until the day Veronica shuffles off this mortal coil.”

“The clock strikes seven. Eileen has gone and I am alone in the house. Being alone is supposed to be an issue for people such as me, but I have to say I find it deeply satisfying. Human company is necessary at times, I admit, but it is almost always irksome one way or another.” (P. 5)

Hazel Prior (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

If you are a fan of books that challenge the notion that life is immutable once settled on a particular course and which sing the praises of re-invention and renewal then you will adore the beguiling wonder of Away With the Penguins.

To be fair, the book is a little tough going at first because Veronica McCreedy is not a pleasant person to be around and there are times when you wonder if it is worth persevering with a person who responds to the normal social niceties with a tone so acidly brusque and razor-sharp rude that you begin to wonder how someone like Eileen has stayed in her employ as long as she has.

But as Prior begins to pull back the layers of Veronica’s life and we are given insight via old diary entries, penned by a 15-year-old Very (her dad’s nickname for her) during the early years of World War Two, into her achingly painful past, and as the penguins work their considerable charm on her (including one in particular), we begin to see a very different side of a woman who simply wants to feel loved and wanted.

Thankfully, Prior never allows the book to descend into treacle-y, twee inspirationalism, and while there are copious moments of human warmth and wonder that make reading Away With the Penguins a total joy, Veronica McCreedy is allowed to retain enough rough edges to make her feel like a real, authentic human being.

The genius of this approach is that for all the redemptive elements to the story, Away With the Penguins never feels like some confected tale of change and growth that sounds like it could never happen in the real world.

“… Two days later I am still sitting here. We haven’t been able to venture outside at all. It is mind-numbingly tedious and suffocatingly claustrophobic. I miss the earth, the air, the sky. I miss the penguins. I can’t stand Mike any more, can’t stand Dietrich and at times I even can’t stand Terry.

The Worst Journey in the World does little to make me feel better about it.” (P. 167)

Granted, it’s highly unlikely that scientists would take an 86-year-old into their base nor let her roam around the penguin rookery with them, and you’d have to wonder if there would be anyone left in Veronica’s life after a lifetime of virulently acerbic treatment of others, but these narratively convenient elements are tempered by the fact that Veronica never once comes across as a saint.

And thank goodness for that because for all her rough edges, Veronica is actually a lot of fun to hang around with, especially as her cranky old lady persona begins to be ameliorated by an awakening of long-repressed memories and the consequential emotional flood they unleash, and she becomes far more rounded and relatable as a human being.

Away With the Penguins is a gem – it offers up the kind of story that reassures us that while life might seem irredeemably bitter, broken and twisted, that it can be turned around no matter how old you are or entrenched in your ways you are.

It does with a protagonist who is deliberately positioned as a lot to handle at first but who becomes softer and far more in touch with the very essence of who she is without relinquishing all those parts of her, the good and the bad, that have accumulated over nearly nine decades of life.

This inspired strategy by Prior means that in Away With the Penguins we get to watch a real person change in a host of believable ways while still offering some cosy and charming reading that dares cynicism and disillusionment to be gone, the perfect mix of the grimly real with the charmingly, joyfully fantastical which places this beautiful book as one of the most accomplished recent entries in a very crowded, and often far less faithful to the vagaries of life, genre.

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