A child’s innocent review
My Family and Other Animals ― Gerald Durrel
My Family and Other Animals is the childhood autobiography of the renowned naturalist Gerald Durrell, and takes place over a few short years that the Durrell family spent together on the Greek Island of Corfu. It is perhaps the best known of Durrell’s Corfu trilogy, the others of which are ‘Birds, Beasts and Relatives’, and ‘The Garden of the Gods’. I have yet to read the other two, but they are currently working their way to the top of my ever increasing ‘to read’ pile.
The Durrell family made the choice to migrate to Corfu in an attempt to escape the dreary English weather. Early on in the book you are made aware that the family is somewhat unconventional as moving abroad seems to be a very snap decision. While of course this could just be the situation viewed through the eyes of a child, I have heard it said that the book paints a fairly accurate picture of the family. In fact it was described by Gerald Durrell’s elder brother Lawrence as “a very wicked, very funny, and I’m afraid rather truthful book”.
Through My Family and Other Animals Durrell traces the amusing happenings of the family in their new lives, and goes to great length to describe and account for all the creatures that he comes into contact with throughout his adventures. In fact, Durrell originally planned for the book to be purely a journal of all the animals he discovered, but in the process of constructing the journal he managed to wonderfully meld his own adventures with that of his family. The result is a really charming child’s snapshot of a period of Gerald Durrell’s life which to all extents sounds absolutely blissful and idyllic.
When writing about her married life to Durrell in her autobiography ‘Beasts in My Bed’, Jacquie Durrell remarked that she had never known Durrell to work with the vivacity he had while writing My Family and Other Animals, commenting that “it seemed to pour out of him”. I find this interesting, as many writers consider writing to be a laborious task. I remember with such clarity a lecture on essay writing during my first week at university. One of our new lecturers told us quite matter-of-factly ‘Writing hurts, and it will always hurt, when you sit down it will be painful’; words that have forever stuck with me. As much as I love writing, I do often find it painful in a way, albeit a positive way. There is no doubt that Durrell was immensely passionate about the animals he wrote about and this seems almost to have flowed directly out of him, through the pages of the book, and into the minds of the reader. I suppose you have to, like Durrell, write about something you love ardently for it to come this naturally.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Durrell’s time in Corfu, while it is not an action packed adventure novel there is so much to appeal to the reader. The eccentricities of the Durrell family seem to make each character instantly likeable. To live on a whim, as the Durrell’s do, must be ever so exciting. Imagine at the age of ten having a mother that would let you keep as a pet any creature you brought home be it a snake, a toad, an owl, anything. Everything that occurs in the Durrell’s lives in steeped in unconventionality, absurdity and hilarity. From the offset Larry has only to suggest going to Greece, and although Mother attempts to resist at first, it is done. Once in Greece Larry makes the bizarre suggestion that they move to a bigger villa, because their current one is too small to accommodate the guests he has invited to stay, and again Mother attempts to stand her ground, but part two of the novel begins with the line ‘The new villa was enormous’. Indeed the uniqueness of the family does not go unnoticed, their parties are always lively to say the least, and on the journey back to England, with “the finches [singing] in their cages, the Magenpies [chucking] and [hammering] with their beaks, and Alecko [giving] mournful [yarps] at intervals. [While] the dogs lay snoring” the family are described by passport control as “One travelling Circus and Staff”.
The entire book is told from the point of view of Durrell’s childhood self, Gerry, the inquisitive ecologist. Gerry’s love of animals of all sorts comes out in all aspects of his writing, the most obvious of course being the title ‘My Family and Other Animals’. He has countless encounters with strange beasts, many of which would make the average person squirm in discomfort, but fill Gerry with an unquenchable curiosity. In fact some of the most animated conversations, and interactions that Gerry recollects are those between himself and his best friend Roger the family dog. He speaks of, and to his pets [and there are many of them] as if they are people. I would even say that in some ways Gerry appears as if he is a sort of animal himself, distanced and at odds with the rest of the family, he is often referred to as: ‘THAT BOY!’
Throughout the novel Gerry is subjected to an education of sorts and often finds himself with the most peculiar tutors. He seems to bond the most with, and indeed goes into the most detail describing, his final tutor Kralefsky who quite coincidentally has a house full of exotic birds. Not surprisingly nature plays a large role in Gerry’s methods of learning and remembering those dull things which children were often forced to memorise. Hannibal and his elephants were memorable because Hannibal gave his elephants hot water bottles, equally he is most interested not in Columbus discovering America, but it the fact that Columbus’ first words upon reaching the shores of America were ‘A Jaguar’. There is the distinct impression that much of the time Gerry spent with his tutors was time better spent elsewhere, as he ultimately learns the most from his unlikely friendship with Theodore, a scientist, and nature lover just like Gerry. Days spent with Theodore are the days Gerry looks forward to the most, and when he commits the majority of his education to memory, asking questions, learning and discovering:
”What, I wondered, did things sound like to a trapdoor spider? I could imagine a snail would trail over the door with a sound like a sticking plaster being torn off. A centipede would sound like a troop of cavalry. A fly would patter in shorts bursts, followed by a pause when it washed its hands – a dull rasping sound like a knife-grinder at work. The larger beetles, I decided, would sound like steam rollers, while the smaller ones, the ladybirds and others, would probably purr over the moss like clockwork motorcars.”
One of my favourite things about My Family and Other Animals, and I am sure this is a recurring theme throughout Durrell’s work, is the lengthy descriptions of the most stunning scenery, amongst events, people, animals, although it is the scenery in particular that I enjoy. The book is full of examples of this, but one of my favourite instances and the one which really stood out to me first and foremost was the description near the beginning of the book, of the family having breakfast outside of their new villa:
“We ate breakfast out in the garden, under the small tangerine trees. The sky was fresh and shining, not yet the fierce blue of noon, but a clear milky opal. The flowers were half-asleep, roses dew crumpled, marigolds still tightly shut.”
Through a description like this you can almost smell the dampness of the flower buds, and feel the slight chill of dawn, the soft blanket of night being pulled back to reveal the splendours of the day ahead.
Durrell pays just as much attention to detail in the description of just about everything in the book. Accounts of different characters are described down to the smallest details; the invaluable Spiro is “a short, barrel-bodied individual, with ham-like hands and a great, leathery, scowling face surmounted by a jauntily-tilted peaked cap”. Everything is described so that it feels it will leap out of the page, like the crowd of Corfiots waiting in the church to kiss the feet of Saint Spiridion “This dark multi-coloured wedge of humanity moved slowly towards the dark door of the church, and we were swept along with it, wedged like pebbles in a larva-flow.”
One aspect of this particular edition of my family and other animals that I very much liked was the inclusion of an afterword by Peter J S Olney. This gave the reader a little information on what happened to the family in the years after the book was set. I thought this a very nice addition, as with works based on true events I often find myself wondering what happened afterwards, knowing of course that the lives of these characters carried on beyond the pages of the book. It was through this afterword that I discovered that the events described in the book, are sometimes, not exactly true. For example, Gerry’s brother Larry actually spent the whole of the time the book is set, living in another part of Corfu, with his wife Nancy. I have also heard it quoted that the reason the family left the Greece, was not, as Gerry claimed, so that he could get an education, but in fact due to the outbreak of the Second World War. Indeed the dates do match up. These inaccuracies, if you can call them that add to the innocence of the book. The idea of the whole family, living together, embarking on one huge, somewhat eccentric adventure, is far nicer than thinking of them having been separated by something as grown up as marriage. Also, while being forced to leave the home of your dreams to pursue an education is hardly a pleasant thought for a child, it is much sweeter than the bitter harsh reality of the Second World War.