Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Review - Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
Published by: Penguin Books
Publication Date: 1956
Format: Paperback, 273 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Gerald Durrell, the famous naturalist, zookeeper, and conservationist, recounts when at the age of ten his family moved to the island of Corfu because they couldn't deal with yet another cold and damp English winter. Gerry and his three siblings, Lawrence, Leslie, and Margo, all fall for the island in different ways. For Gerry it's the abundance of creatures that he can capture and observe, many making their way into the family residence and causing quite a kerfuffle. With the help of their self-appointed guardian, Spiro, they start to view Corfu as their true home, even if they have to move house several times to accommodate Larry's parties or in order to escape more relatives. One thing is clear, if they could they would never leave.

Before the explosion of British television shows onto our screens in recent years Masterpiece Theatre was where you got your Brit fix and, inevitably, added books to your reading list. Almost ten years ago I was transfixed by the Sunday late night showings of Masterpiece Theatre which started around midnight. This is how I discovered some of my favorite shows, from Bleak House to He Knew He Was Right. On the lighter side I discovered My Family and Other Animals. It stared Matthew Goode from He Knew He Was Right and Downton Abbey as the only Durrell I had heard of at that time, Lawrence. The movie was funny and exotic, and even if the music occasionally grated on you, there was something magical about it. At about the same time Peguin was re-releasing several of Gerry's books with gorgeous new covers by Mick Wiggins, so needless to say they all came to join my library, and have sat waiting for me to have the time to read them even since.

I recently added a second book club to my monthly activities, yes, what can I say, I'm a sucker for reading and love to have someone to talk to about a book once I finish. At my mother's suggestion for post holiday blahs My Family and Other Animals was chosen as a respite from reality and the dreary nonfiction suggestions of other members of our group. The book does provide a lovely escape to warm climates and happier carefree days that one needs to be reminded of during the bleakness of a Wisconsin winter. But at our discussion I felt as if I was the only one who was transported to another place and time. Everyone was hung up on little nonessentials, like where the Durrells got their money and why a friendship with an older father figure was encouraged for Gerry. They were unable to escape their reality for a moment and inhabit another place and time.  

Though in fairness to my other book clubbers, the book does have an unevenness to it that almost inhibits you being able to engage with it for quite a few chapters. The problem is that Durrell doesn't quite grasp how to balance his family and his "other" animals. He struggles to reconcile the two and therefore much of the beginning of the book is two parallel narratives, that of his family and that of his animals. Durrell at this time had actually written five previous books but they all dealt with his expeditions and his trips collecting animals. These books were popular, but it wasn't until My Family and Other Animals that he wrote a book that became an instant classic. By adding in the eccentricities of his family the reader has someone to relate to versus just observations of the natural world.

And while Durrell's observations of Corfu can at times leave you breathless with it's beauty, it needs the juxtaposition of something relatable for us readers. And oh my, his family is relatable. From the vain sister, to his two brothers, either concerned with artistry or how much he can kill in a day with his guns, everyone can find something or someone in his family to sympathize and relate to. In fact the turning point for me in the book is when Durrell moves from just observing the animals to treating them as members of his family in their own right. While Larry might bemoan the anthropomorphism of the animals in their household, it is this very thing that made the book click and took it from mediocre to nearly marvelous. The animals being treated as humans, as family, is one of the reasons the book starts to succeed, it's the interaction between these newly "human" animals and Durrell's very human family that result in comic gold.

While everything from random birds to reptiles in the tub are sources of amusement, to me the two magpies that Durrell "rescued" result in some of the best moments in the book. Thanks to Spiro they become known as the magenpies and they develop a rather strong hatred of Larry. They spend most of their time flying around the house, indoors and out, but they long to see Larry's room. Much like my cat when he was a kitten, it's wherever they aren't supposed to go that they long to. Needless to say they destroy Larry's room when given the chance. But it's their life in the cage attached to the house that brings their personalities into true focus when they use their knack for imitation to taunt and tease all the family. Then there are the family dogs, Roger, Widdle, Puke and the bitch Dodo, whose going into heat sends the house into chaos, especially during a big dinner party. Marx Brothers levels of chaos ensues.

But as you close the covers of the book you are left with one question. What is the truth? Because if you look into the Durrell's lives, things don't quite add up. Larry was married during this time, so where was his wife? How much of this is autobiographical and how much is conflation to make the book more humorous and fun? Could anyone really remember things in such detail from when they were ten when writing it twenty years on? But, does it really matter? The truth is we make ourselves out of the stories we tell every day. I think Durrell said it best: "It was a wonderful story, and might well be true. Even if it wasn't true, it was the sort of thing that should happen."


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