Wednesday 3 May 2017

My Friend Tertius

My Friend Tertius written by Corinne Fenton and illustrated by Owen Swan (Allen and Unwin)  HB RRP $24.99  ISBN 9781760113827

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

It is Hong Kong, 1941, and Arthur and Tertius are best friends. Arthur spends his days decoding Japanese air force signals for British intelligence. Tertius spends his days springing about the office furniture like the ‘inquisitive trapeze artist’ that he is. Tertius is a gibbon.

When Arthur is ordered to leave Hong Kong, he can’t bear to leave Tertius behind. He sneaks him onto the ship to Singapore, where they ‘live the high life’ … until the Japanese fighter planes arrive. Arthur is ordered to evacuate immediately. He takes Tertius with him, barely making it onto the last ship out. His journey eventually leads him to Australia. He successfully smuggles Tertius into the country, until a police officer discovers him in their Melbourne hotel room. Tertius’ illegal status means his life is in question, but he is sent to the Melbourne Zoo after Arthur begs for an alternative fate. Before long, Arthur is summoned to London. He leaves, heartbroken, but comes back to visit Tertius in 1947 after the war is over. The story ends on a tender note, with Tertius not only remembering Arthur but also wrapping ‘his arms about [him] as if he’d never let go’.

This is a heartwarming, true story, told by award-winning writer, Corinne Fenton, and superbly illustrated by Owen Swan. Though Fenton acknowledges the wartime setting, she states that ‘it’s not a war story’ but ‘a love story between a man and his beloved pet’. The story is told from the first-person perspective of Arthur, and is quite informative. Younger readers might find the war themes quite confronting, with vivid language describing the bombings and their associated terror. (‘There were bombs whistling, exploding, shattering, but worst of all was the screaming. Tertius trembled in my arms.’) The suggested age group for this picture book, therefore, is 5–8 years.

Swan’s pencilled sketches appear in a soft, vintage palette throughout. He varies and limits the colours on each page to great effect, with frightening war scenes often depicted in only two or three tones. The washed-out appearance of the pictures perfectly complements the historical setting.

This talented duo have beautifully told Arthur Cooper’s story of companionship, loyalty, and the importance of holding on to love during times of war.

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