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)
Then one day Veronica makes a fateful decision, one that will have a significant impact on her life going forward.
She decides that she must do something meaningful with all the money she has accrued, both now and after she is gone, and she decides to will all her money to a penguin project down on fictional Locket Island near Antarctica where a bunch of dedicated researchers are striving to learn more, with ever-diminishing financial backing, about the thousands of Adélie penguins who call the small, chilly landmass home.
Now most people would simply see their solicitor, make the necessary arrangements and leave it at that; but then, Veronica McCreedy is not most people.
She makes a decision to travel to Locket Island to see the work of the project for herself, ignoring the entreaties of the scientists at the base not to come because conditions are spartan at best, and the concerns of Eileen that it’s a long way to go for a person in the prime of their life, let alone a woman fast approaching 90.
But Veronica, who has a mass of secrets from a past she never talks about, and who has just discovered she may not be as alone in the world as she thought, is not deterred and makes it her decisions to take planes, automobiles and a ship to see the penguins for herself.
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.