Saturday 4 September 2021

The What on Earth Institute of Wonder

The What on Earth Institute of Wonder by Lisa NicolLisa (Puffin) PB RRP $16.99 ISBN 9781761041556

Reviewed by Dianne Bates

Lisa Nicol, an Australian author, has written two earlier children’s novels which this reviewer loved: Dr Boogaloo and the Girl Who Lost her Laughter, and Vincent and the Grandest Hotel on Earth, so her third novel was certainly enticing. 

Like the others, The What on Earth Institute of Wonder is filled with larger-than-life, eccentric characters and rich, quirky language.

The unexpected arrival of Hector, a ‘plump and portly’ New Zealand parrot, and an elephant, into the small, unlucky town of Larry, home of a sewerage plant, is the starting point of this madcap novel. The elephant is herded into and trapped in the town’s mail-sorting warehouse. There it attracts world-wide attention, including that of twelve-year-old Sal, who can talk to and understand Hector, Sal's younger doomsday prepper brother Rob, and their teenage neighbour, Bartholomew. Sal has always had an affinity with animals – especially the lost kind. But when these two rare and endangered creatures appear out of nowhere, life takes a detour into strange and uncharted territory. How the three children deal with the animal problem forms the core of this character-filled novel: it is a mind-boggling expedition into the secrets of the animal kingdom.

Nicol has a wildly vivid imagination which informs her characters and her story’s plot. Phrases are strikingly original, such as ‘Sal and Roy’s dad had up and left as unexpectedly as finding a severed finger in your soup,’ ‘…the tree came to life like a busy department store with a half-priced sale’, and ‘the moon floated in the sky like a humungous gargantuan overgrown grape.’ (The moon features in the story as Sal and Roy’s somewhat deranged mother is obsessed with it, so much so she forgets to mother her children).

At one point, Sal says, ‘Life itself is one big mystery’ which helps to explain what happens in this book that celebrates the unusual. Overall, it is a timely story about family, belonging, overcoming obstacles, finding your own voice, and the importance of the natural world.

Especially for readers aged 9+ years, this is a weird, riveting novel.

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