The genre of nature writing often combines memoir with nature observations, which can bring out the best in an author. There are however times when this very mixing is what fails the book, and Penguin Year by Lindsay McCrae sadly falls into that category. This book is the memoir of a camera-man getting the amazing opportunity to film emperor penguins for 11 months, in Antarctica – everything is taken care of; food, living situation, equipment, the whole package; as long as he accepts the offer. Coming at perhaps the worst possible timing as he finds out his wife, Becky, is pregnant with their first child and their time living together is still freshly begun. In the end, he takes the leap – a very understanding Becky gives the okay for this adventure of his, leaving her behind in the last few months of pregnancy and the first months of their son’s life. McCrae spends some time worrying about what he is leaving behind but quickly realises it is the opportunity of a lifetime, a dream come true. Soon he is off to chase that dream – a cold, long, at times isolated, challenging, stunning and distant dream. The book chronicles that year in the making of a documentary – the episode on emperor penguins in “Dynasties” – filming, living in Antarctica, his day-to-day mixed with his observations of the life that can prosper at the bottom of the earth.
The main problem comes down to the author himself. He whines from the first few pages down to the last, about anything and everything: what he is missing back home, that Becky is having a nice time in a warmer climate, missing birds and biking, boring food, nothing to film, panic at nothing to film, can’t the penguins just get down to business – who cares if it’s too cold for them to be out and about, if I can’t see them I can’t bloody do my filming job. There’s a stronger focus on his work and everything surrounding the filming than the penguins themselves, the latter being the better part of the book. The observations of the penguins are often clear-eyed and close-up, which is of course lovely as the animal is one not many of us can ever see in such a location. It’s fascinating to read about what the landscape of an emperor penguin actually looks like, throughout a year and the seasons; what stages make up its life, what challenges comes with each such passage, and how they prosper is such challenging living circumstances. One of the downsides to a book like this with a strong personal perspective is that the very eyes you are seeing the story through contaminates what you are seeing. As we’re standing beside a camera-man, we look at the penguins as the star of a show – and if nothing much happens, or too much of the same, his irritation shines through the shot. In the text there’s at times a distinct lack of understanding and genuine interest for the penguin’s well-being. There’s only one memorable instance where this is clearly not the case, as he helps the penguins in a rough turn and it’s one of the best parts of the book; where there’s true feeling for another’s life separate from ones own agenda.
There’s another aspect to the writing that cuts down its potential, it is the lack of skill this writer has in the craft itself. Rather than thrilling, transporting and nerve-tingling – as it could easily be with this premise – it is ineffectual in the conveyance of experience and emotion. In an attempt at getting across the strength of his feelings, he repeats himself over and over, arguing in a circle – rather than conveying that strength of emotion through sharp and well-selected words. There’s lack of power to his prose, missing the point of adventure and high-stakes, making for tedious reading. Looking at his documentary I can see from a second his talent in filmmaking but unfortunately this does not translate into the book.
When the days are coming to an end and he is getting ready to leave, hindsight seems to make him more appreciative of everything he has been able to observe first-hand and the unique experience he has been given – which also made the book end on a fairly positive note. Overall, I felt disappointed by what could have been a moving and vibrant book on life of any form living at the furthest south-point of the earth; I have yet to watch the full episode that was the harvest of this year-long experience and hope to see more compassion and insight through this lens than came through Penguin Year.
Thanks to the publisher who kindly gave me a digital review copy of this book!
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Title: Penguin Year – Life Among the Emperors
Author: Lindsay McCrae
Publisher: William Morrow
Publishing Year: 2019 (November 12)
Genre: nonfiction, memoir