Walking book club: Hampstead Heath, Death and The Penguin

Emily's Walking Book Club prepare to set off across Hampstead Heath

Emily's Walking Book Club prepares to set off across Hampstead Heath - Credit: Courtesy of Emily Rhodes

On a beautiful Sunday morning in May, I joined Emily Rhodes outside Daunt Books, in South End Road, for her latest Walking Book Club.

The group has been raising money for the DEC’s Ukraine appeal, but today, they won’t just be raising money for the war-torn country, but discussing a work by Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov.

Emily Rhodes at her latest Walking Book Club on Hampstead Heath

Emily Rhodes at her latest Walking Book Club on Hampstead Heath - Credit: Laura Brick

Death and The Penguin is set in Kyiv in the 1990’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It tells the story of Viktor, an aspiring author, who writes obituaries for a living, and owns a pet penguin which he saved from a zoo.

Before the group set off across Hampstead Heath, Emily tells us that she not only wanted to raise money (£420 so far) but also to “raise awareness of Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian heritage and Ukrainian literature".

“Reading this really made me imagine myself in some of the places we’re hearing about on the news," she added.

The first question Emily puts to us is whether we liked Kurkov's novel. Many hands go up.

“I’m so glad everyone loves this book!"

The group walks for a few minutes discussing the title. Emily tells us it is different depending on the language. In Ukrainian it is called Death of a Stranger, and in German it is Picnic on the Ice. Emily asks us to vote on which title we think best reflects the book with a show of hands. The group thinks the English title works best.

Emily's Walking Book Club

The club walk across the Heath discussing the latest book as they go - Credit: Laura Brick

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We walk on longer discussing the book before stopping for another group conversation.

Emily points out that Kurkov uses ideas that are “quite familiar to us”, like owning pets and having picnics, but makes them “really weird”, like having a picnic on ice, or owning a penguin rather than a cat or a dog - a device that has “sinister” undertones early on in the book.

She directs us to the BBC’s World Book Club podcast in 2015 when Kurkov explained that the penguin is a metaphor for the loneliness that a lot of people in Ukraine felt after the collapse of the USSR. They felt they had lost the sense of community spirit that existed in the Soviet Union.

Biata Goodwin, who grew up in Communist Poland, said the book is similar to literature she read in Poland during the Communist era when books were censored.

“If you wanted to write a book about politics, you would use animals rather than people."

Deborah Rapp, another group member said Kurkov effectively showed how people were "caught in the system" in post-Soviet Ukraine.

She later told me: "I would not necessarily have picked up this book if it weren't for Emily. She's a real inspiration because she gets you to read books that you might not have read otherwise. Plus it's nice to be out in the fresh air talking about books."

Appropriately enough, our midway snack was Penguin biscuits.

Emily started the walking book group ten years ago while working at Daunt Books in South End Green with the idea that instead of sitting at a table to talk about a book, participants would walk and talk.

The group now has around 1,000 members and also holds Zoom sessions, with members paying a voluntary £5 fee for each session.

The next book club is on June 26 on Hampstead Heath discussing Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen Translated by Tiina Nunnally. Visit emilyrhodeswriter.com/emilys-walking-book-club/