My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

corfu

Image from here

I took this delightful book on holiday with me, and it was the perfect read for lazy days bathed in the warm Mediterranean sun. I’ve always known about it, but the experience of reading the novel was quite different to what I had expected. I assumed it was going to be a largely comic novel, about the outlandish behaviour of an overly eccentric family, but Durrell is a far more subtle writer than that. While it is at times laugh out loud funny, this is due to his ironic wit rather than a reliance on caricature. The pleasure of My Family and Other Animals is in its understatedness, and how Durrell presents his family’s adventurous and unconventional lifestyle in a manner that makes it seem perfectly ordinary and plausible. He is also wonderful at capturing the stunning landscape of Corfu: land of olive groves, peeling Venetian mansions and sandy beaches lit at night by the soft glow of fireflies. I was certainly sold on the idea of throwing everything to the wind and moving to a Greek island by the time I finished reading!

When Gerald Durrell’s older brother Larry (the novelist Lawrence Durrell) says he is sick of living in the cold, damp climate of a miserably grey England and suggests that they all move to Corfu, rather than laughing at such impetuosity, Durrell’s mother says “Why not?” and shortly the entire family – Gerald, the youngest, Margo, Leslie and Larry, plus Roger the dog – are on their way to a new life in the sun. This is the early 1930s, when Corfu had become fashionable as an enclave of artistic types, and when the Durrells ship up, they soon find they are in good company. Spiro, an eccentric cab driver who speaks hilariously accented English thanks to a spell working in London as a young man, takes the family under his wing and finds them a lovely pink villa with glorious gardens that is nestled amidst the olive groves. Gerald is initially free to roam the island with Roger, finding plenty of intriguing species of insect to study, peasants to befriend and shady trees under which to nap, but soon it is decided that he is getting too wild and needs to be taught something. As such, a number of would-be tutors are sourced from the town, of varying quality and varying eccentricity.

Coupled with young Gerald’s adventures are those of his siblings and mother, who all float around Corfu obsessed with their own affairs. Larry is perpetually entertaining hordes of friends, eventually necessitating a move to a new house to contain them all, and complaining about his wayward younger brother’s unfortunate habit of leaving insects lying around. Leslie is fascinated by guns and hunting, and takes every opportunity to show off his skills by killing whatever animals he can find. Margot is forever trying new diets to cure her acne, and wears as little as possible in order to attract the opposite sex, with often hilarious consequences. Mrs Durrell is wonderfully vague and affectionate, and spends most of her time trying out elaborate new recipes or pottering in her garden. All of them adore life on Corfu, and embrace the people and landscape of their new island home. One of the most magical descriptions of the landscape is when they all go on a night time escapade to a local beach, and swim in the ghostly light of the water’s phosphorescence and the glowing orbs of the fireflies that gather along the water’s edge. It would be difficult to imagine a more liberating and memorable way to grow up, and I rather envied the Durrells and their carefree, sunlit world. I loved every second of the Durrell’s adventures, and reading this has made me get itchy feet again! This is such an inspiring and evocative read – definitely a favourite I’ll come back to time and again.

27 comments

  1. I’ve seen this book in my library but never picked it up. For some reason I thought it was all about animals (I like animals but just not always in the mood for an animal book). This sounds delightful. Thanks for the review!

  2. I read this when quite young but initially with great reluctance and only because there was absolutely NOTHING ELSE to read. I too thought it was all about animals and definitely not something I would choose to read. Imagine my surprise to discover that while the story was about Durrell’s obsession with wild life, it’s also a wonderful story about his delightfully chaotic family who are living in what could only be described as paradise. This book is definitely one of my top ten all-time-favourite children’s books (although it’s for all ages).

  3. I love this book! I heard it for the first time listening to it as a “Talking Book” with my father who was blind. We read it aloud several times after that, barely able to get through parts of it for all the laughter. Now I think it may be time to read it again.

  4. I loved this book as a child and as an adult, and wrote to Gerald Durrell about it, and received a kind reply. It could be described as written in a novelistic style, but I suppose it is more of a memoir, really. There are several other books about the Durrell family in Corfu, including more by Gerald, and other biographical works by various people. Evocative of a long disappeared Corfu, sadly, but that’s how life goes…

    1. Oh how amazing! Lucky you. I’d like to read more of Durrell’s books and I shall be on the lookout for them now. Yes, it’s a shame Corfu has changed so much – no longer an unspoiled idyll.

  5. We read this at school and it was a revelation and delight, as well as very funny. I also read Lawrence Durrell’s (pretentious Larry of this book) evocation of the same period in ‘The Bitter Lemons of Cyprus’ – a nice counterpoint to the lightness here.

  6. My children gave me the BBC DVD set for Xmas . The one with Hannah Gordon. We used to all watch it every Saturday when they were little. Fabulous!! Enjoy

  7. Hi Rachel,

    Glad to hear you’ve given Durrell a try – he was one of my childhood favourites and I went onto the read lot of his other works. These days he is getting quite forgotten – his heyday seems to have been the 70s.

    I think you will like this. As far I as know I think this is his one short story, a wonderfully sinister Gothic horror called ‘The Entrance’. I love how masterfully he builds up a sense of unease and the freakish being he creates is truly one of literature’s greats.
    I did this in a senior literature class. In the first lesson, the girls were not so keen. But as they caught on, and we kept reading, there were cries of disappointment as the bell rang at the end of the second class.

    I’ve included the link but other google Durrell and The Entrance.

    http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/italian/current/ug/modules/modulesyears34/it309/reading_for_term_2/durrell_the_entrance.pdf

    Kathleen

  8. My introduction to Gerald Durrell was his book “Three Singles to Adventure”. Early on in his career Durrell collected animals for a zoo. This is his account of a trip to South America. He truly had a gift for seeing the comical in life and bringing it to the page, no better example of that than this book. I highly recommend this book to everyone. It’s not really about the animals, but a fish-out-of-water story about the author.

    One thing to keep in mind in reading his books is that it was a very different time. Some of the language and perceived attitudes to indigenous peoples will seem harsh by today’s standard. But, if you look closely, you will perceive a generally good attitude.

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