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Katarina Mazetti, Mitt liv som pingvin (My Life as a Penguin)

Alfabeta,  2008. ISBN: 9789150109436

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2009:2

Two novels about relationship dramas on polar voyages in the same issue of Bookshelf! With the creative community having been recruited to many expeditions during the recent International Polar Year, perhaps it is not such a coincidence, but how fascinating to compare and contrast how Mazetti (in the Antarctic) and Majgull Axelsson (in the Arctic) develop the basic premise. And how strange that both novels feature a mother who abandons her infant son and spends her life at sea.

There are three main characters in My Life as A Penguin, as well as a background assortment of fellow tourists, ornithologists, tour guides and Russian crew members, and a vast crowd of extras: birds, seals, penguins and other wildlife. Alba is a restless and intrepid sixty-something, who sees herself as an albatross, spending her whole life far from shore. She values her freedom, likes new experiences and is a wise and shrewd observer of the human condition. The book is interspersed with her Darwin-inspired notes comparing animal and human behaviour. Gangling, sociable red-haired Wilma is a younger woman, also single, who enjoys her work as a maths teacher. She was brought up by her forester father as a son, hunting and shooting with the best of them. His recent death left her with an unexpectedly large inheritance, but coincided with a terrible diagnosis of her stiffness and lack of coordination: she is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, for which there is as yet no cure. So she takes the trip of a lifetime while she can, and keeps determinedly cheerful and positive, telling no one but the ship’s doctor of her condition, although her fellow passengers cannot fail to notice her tendency to lose her balance and fall over. Lastly there is Tomas, an investigative journalist who, in the process of travelling the world in pursuit of a good story, has lost his wife and children to the hunk across the road. They have moved to California, he has been through a painful divorce, and misses his young son and daughter so deeply that he has decided there is no point in living. The aim of his trip is not to return, so he is turning his back on life, while Wilma celebrates it.

Strange couples have become the stock-in-trade of Mazetti’s novels, so it comes as no surprise that circumstances throw Wilma and Tomas together on the flight out to Santiago. Later, on board the m/v Orlovsky, they develop a kind of friendship, couched in barbed banter, in which he is the depressed and self-pitying half (though he does not reveal his plans) and she his self-appointed supporter and dispenser of cheer. Tomas dubs her Pollyanna. The days of spectacular sightseeing fail to raise his spirits, and after some days he contrives to be left behind on a snowy island in sub-zero temperatures with a half bottle of whisky and some sleeping pills. But Wilma raises the alarm and his life is saved. His anger however evaporates when he learns from the ship’s doctor of Wilma’s own illness and her stoical approach to it; he feels suitably abashed at his own selfish behaviour. His clumsy attempts to offer to look after her for the rest of her days are rebuffed, but eventually they both decide they would rather be together than apart, and some sort of shared future seems likely.

Like the best stand-up comedians, Mazetti deals in throwaway lines that make us laugh because we recognise all too well our own human foibles and the ridiculousness of life. Although a genuinely suicidal character like Tomas sits a little uneasily among her gallery of comic characters, she manages elsewhere to raise serious issues without becoming preachy, for example by letting the passengers’ evening bar conversations range over different views on global warming, ethical tourism, carbon footprints and other topics which a polar voyage might legitimately raise. But the novel’s primary message, if it has one, is put in Alma’s mouth: love between two people is not instantly recognisable but can look like just about anything, and human beings are like icebergs, nine-tenths hidden beneath the surface.

Mazetti’s Grabben i graven bredvid, also a social-conscience-laced comedy about an unlikely romance, proved a runaway success in Sweden and was published in the UK as Benny and Shrimp. It is about to be launched in the USA and has already garnered enthusiastic reviews there, where Mazetti’s writing has been compared to that of Carol Shields.

Also by Katarina Mazetti

Other reviews by Sarah Death

Other reviews in SBR 2009:2

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