Review: The Kensington Reptilarium by N J Gemmell

Published by Random House. RRP $16.95.
Recommended for  children/young adults 10 years+
Highlights: strong female lead;  magical, mysterious location; discussion of Anglo-Australian post WW2 relations. 

Kensington Reptilarium

Nikki Gemmell has written some of my most-loved and most-loathed books of recent years. Whatever she writes about though, it gets me thinking about writing, which is why she remains one of my favourite Australian authors.   In her latest incarnation as N J Gemmell, children’s author, she’s created a truly unique novel for young readers that’s packed with her distinctive turns of phrase.   If you’re a Gemmell fan, you’ll already know what I mean about her writing style. The slap of it.  Love it.

The Kensington Reptilarium is one of the most original kids’ books I’ve read in quite some time. It’s so fresh, in fact, that it’s hard to assign it a genre, or a recommended reading age.   It is one part magic realism, one part historical document, with all the classic tropes of children’s fiction: absent parents, sibling struggles, moral challenges and Christmas!  As the world recovers from World War 2, four rag tag Australian bush children are ripped from their outback home and transplanted to the centre of London, into the care of an eccentric uncle with no interest in family life.  Their mother has already passed away and their father is missing in action, with the mystery of his true whereabouts forming the backbone of the narrative.   The language would suit keen readers from 10 years up, but the subjects might require more maturity.  Be prepared for some discussion of the war time context with curious kids.

The four children – Kick, Scruff, Bert and Pin Caddy – are distinct individuals who work as a well-oiled team.  Growing up in the hostile Australian outback, with intermittent parental supervision, they are ready for anything, unimpressed by authority and uninterested in the trappings of ‘civilized’ society.   Their juxtaposition with the formality of London society is an interesting play on the colonial story; echoing Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians, where the undisciplined nature of Aussie children is symbolic of freedom from the shackles of Empire.  Their dusty nicknames blanket real names like Phineaus and Albertina, in just one of many symbolic references to the evolving postcolonial relationship between Britain and Australia.

The Caddys’ Uncle Basti dwells within the Reptilarium; a fantastical building, unassuming from the street, but a maze of wax works, libraries and reptile housing within;  a celebration of all the best known London attractions combined with a nod to the turn of the century British penchant for collecting and categorising the world’s treasures.  A highlight for me is the top secret room bearing a warning sign that he who enters may never leave.  What’s inside? (Spoiler alert)  The library of course! Packed with enough tomes to keep anyone engrossed for life.

The children shift between fear, rebellion and resentment in their response to their new home, but the alternative of an orphanage in that particular day and age is far more worrying than the prospect of breaking down Uncle Basti’s emotional fortress.  There is little more to the story itself. There is tension and emotion, but no action-packed chases, no super hero moments.  The steady unravelling of the Caddy’s family story, alongside the individual histories of the novel’s other adult protagonists, pushes the narrative along, while painting a bigger picture about the legacies of war and the resilience (or lack thereof) of the human spirit.

The Reptilarium itself is really the star of the story (oh please, someone, make the film!).   It has the great British eccentricity of something like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with the secrecy and marvel of Willy Wonka’s factory.  The admirable and burdened oldest girl – Kick – is also a noteworthy presence as a strong female lead.  She is like Turner’s Judy, Blyton’s Anne and Alcott’s Jo – in Blundstone boots.   Those girls were my fictional heroines growing up, and I think Kick has similar potential for new readers.

The Kensington Reptilarium is a clever Christmas story about family love and loyalty. Gemmell’s writing features simple vocabulary, but complicated phraseology, so it may be one to read with, or to, younger readers.   I do hope Gemmell has more adventures planned for the Caddy kids!

Visit the Random House website to download a free sample chapter from this book and some excellent Teachers’ Notes, which show an ad for the real Kensington Reptilarium that inspired the book!

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