Let’s get the most important thing out of the way: the back-of-the-book blurb for Penguin Highway confidently proclaims “Everything made sense…until the penguins showed up!”, which may just be my favorite book summary of all time. In fact, I’m thinking of adopting that phrase as my personal motto.
Now that I’ve made a mental note to reprint all of my business cards, onward. Often, the highest praise you can give to a book is claiming that you couldn’t put it down. With Penguin Highway I had the opposite experience, which might lead you to believe that I didn’t care for it that much. In reality, this was the inverse of the I-can’t-put-it-down phenomenon; I wanted to keep putting my reading on hold, because I knew that once I finished the book, I could never again return to that strange, beautiful world. I could always read it again, but it would never the same as the first time. Despite the fact that this book is a rather petite little volume, I spent a whole week reading it, dragging it out as much as possible so I could savor every moment.
This book is written from the perspective of a child– an extremely precocious one, but a child nonetheless. Sometimes reading from a child’s perspective is nice just to be reminded of one’s own childhood, but Penguin Highway takes it to another level by making me nostalgic for a childhood I never really lived. This is something all great stories featuring children have in common, I find; they make you relive being a child, but not in quite the same way as you actually lived it. There’s enough overlap with things you really thought and did at that time to feel authentic, yet there’s something uncanny about the fact that you find yourself longing for a simple time that A)was never actually simple and B)didn’t exist. Yet the longing remains.
Our scientist-hero, Aoyama, is a smart kid, but he make the typical smart-kid mistake of assuming he must be the smartest person who’s ever lived (he never admits that out loud, but you can tell he totally thinks so). That’s why he’s so stymied when he runs into a mystery he seemingly has no hope of solving: penguins, and other creatures, are randomly appearing throughout Aoyama’s small town. Aoyama knows that the penguins have something to do with the lady who works at the dentist’s office (whom, coincidentally, Aoyoma has a massive crush on), and quantum physics are somehow involved. But even for a child genius with a bunch of fresh notebooks and a dream, that’s not a lot to go on.
Don’t go into this book expecting a rich feast of detail, because it’s not that kind of story. For one thing, though she’s the most important character in the book besides Aoyama himself, the lady from the dentist’s office is only ever called “the lady.” We never learn her name, or a lot of the other things we would like to know about her. Aoyama’s friends do get names, but the whole setting is detail-light, in general. The book does provide enough information to paint a vivid picture of the town and nearby forest where the action takes place, but once the setting is established, things are explained rather tersely. I thought the restraint was deliberate and interesting, but some others might have difficulty suspending disbelief, considering that some pretty incredible events are explained with minimal detail.
This book will have you asking an awful lot of questions, and it’s hard to say whether or not we ever really get answers. Yes, we do find out where the penguins are coming from, among other things, but every piece of information leads to about ten more questions, many of which remain unanswered at the end of the book. This ambiguity mirrors the themes that Morimi is dealing with, like the mixed blessing of growing up. When Aoyama gets what he wants and grows up to become “an important adult,” will he be happy? Or will he be regretful that he tried so hard to act like a grown-up, that he let his childhood pass him by? As his sleepy little town develops, will he relish the new conveniences and opportunities? Or will he long for the peace and quiet he never truly appreciated before?
Suffice to say, if you like a clean, meticulous ending where everything is properly explained and wrapped in a neat little bow, Penguin Highway may not be for you. This book is a mess, but it’s a strange, elegant mess, if you can imagine such a thing. To me, it’s an unusually energetic and charming rumination on the nature of mortality, and that’s how I’ll likely remember it. I was going back and forth in my mind over whether the 13 & Up rating is really necessary, but all the talk about death probably is a bit intense for a younger audience. Younger children may enjoy reading about Aoyama and his research (and be tempted to start research projects of their own), but may not be equipped to handle the darkness hiding behind a cheery facade.
This edition features an analysis from Moto Hagio, one of the mothers of Shoujo manga. It’s a nice feature, but if you were expecting Ms. Hagio to do the heavy lifting for you and explain what this whole thing was supposed to mean, you’re out of luck. In fact, the main thing Hagio does is ask more questions, so it’s less of an analysis and more of a gesture of shared confusion. Let’s all have fun being confused together, and if waddling penguins are involved, so much the better.
A seemingly wacky premise belies a tale with resonant themes about mortality, growing up, and human progress. Some may find the concepts underdeveloped and the writing spare, while others will take the book’s concise nature as an invitation to fill in the blanks on their own.
[This review originally published at The Fandom Post].