Death and the Penguin has proved to be the iced gem of last year's Christmas offerings (yes this review is a little late) - a book that is warm, witty, intelligent and sufficiently unusual to be genuinely compelling.
Consider this. Your local zoo can no longer afford to feed all of its animals and asks concerned local citizens to adopt smaller animals that they can look after. What do you take? A meerkat, perhaps? (Very trendy). A snake? A monkey?
Viktor Zolotaryov plumps for a penguin, MIsha, that lives in a gap behind his sofa and feeds on frozen fish provided by his new owner.
Its an odd sort of decision to make, not least because Viktor later proves not to be the decisive type. He is lost in the new Ukraine - the story was first published in 1996, just as the former Soviet republic was making its way as a free state - and Misha the penguin, a true fish out of water, is a mirror to Viktor.
In addition to his new role as penguin-keeper, Viktor also finds himself in a new job, writing obituaries for a local newspaper, a turn that brings even more strangeness into his life than having an Antarctic bird living behind the sofa. Viktor rapidly discovers that his writing of obituaries heralds death on its subjects, rather than the other way round.
The obituary writing heralds other changes in Viktor's life. First he finds himself the inadvertant guardian of Sonya, a young girl left on his doorstep by a mysterious "friend" Misha, known as Misha-non-Penguin. And when he hires a nanny to help with Sonya, he finds himself at that centre of an accidental family.
And while this brings the illusion of normalcy - penguin notwithstanding - Viktor's life takes on an increasingly surreal quality. He is paid to attend funerals with his increasingly depressed penguin, in the role of chief mourner just as his own blameless, if directionless, life begins to converge with Ukraine's burgeoning organised industry.
Death and the Penguin is a strange book, a satirical novel that shouldn't really work, but does and does so brilliantly that the ending is merely a visual prompt to the immediate ordering of its sequel, Penguin Lost. It works because Viktor and Misha (penguin) offer such a perfect perspective on the emerging Ukraine and the bewildering changes to personal and public lives ushered in by ideological change. And it does so because Kurkov untethers himself from both convention and reality and uses his freedom to offer a series of profound, philosophical observations on the human (and penguin condition) bound together by a charming narrative, laced with wit and insight. Just brilliant.