My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ironically, the passage from Durrell’s book which I was using as a teaching example for my English students – and which led me to finally pick up this famous work – isn’t actually in this book! The result is that I am now starting on the second book of what I’ve discovered is actually a trilogy. It waits to be seen if I’ll tackle the third.
I enjoyed this…well, what is it? Novel? Biography?, Travelogue? Natural History? Even the author himself doesn’t seem to know, admitting that it started as the latter but somehow his family kept butting in. He claims everything which happened was true but I have my doubts – partly as a fellow writer knowing that truth normally needs a tweak here and there for literary audiences, but also because the tired old story of the ‘Bouncing Tosca’ was trotted out as fact, taking place in Corfu. In fact, the story (which can be found online occurring in a variety of locations and with different, often anonymous, singers taking the role) is an operatic myth and there is no reliable evidence it ever occurred. Admittedly, this is a tale told to the young Gerald rather than a narration of something he saw himself, but it still spoils what I would like to believe is biography. For this reason, I’ve cruelly lobbed of a star in my rating.
That small gripe aside, the book on the whole was a real delight. The writing style is not unlike a Wodehouse-esque Jeeves and Wooster but it is much gentler humour and there is a real sense of serenity and peace about every page. I can almost hear the waters lapping the shores, the crickets chirruping and feel the sun warming my face as I read. There’s no laugh-out-loud moments but there’s plenty of pleasant smiles and wry grins. I hardly felt like I was reading at all. More like taking afternoon tea, in good company, at a holiday resort.
Certainly, I feel no angst about having to read the next book in order to find my missing passage (which, in case you were desperate to know, features a donkey to rather comic effect) but at the same time I’m not sure I will want to finish the trilogy. The humour, I suspect, might begin to prove a little too gentle. I’ll let you know when I’m finished.
One thing I should add: Durrell’s mother deserves a medal. If she was anything like the way he portrays her, the woman had the patience of a saint. In my mind she’s also rather attractive, and I can’t give you any logical reason for that as she is never described. I would very much liked to have met her though. The rest of the family…well, you’d best read for yourself. I’m torn between feeling these caricatures deserve what happens to them or whether I would be just like them myself if I encountered Gerald’s escaped menagerie of creatures as often as they did. Pity or scorn – take your pick.
Durrell’s book takes us back to the easier, permanent-holiday feel of the upper middle classes having just come out of both WWII and the colonial era. Rather like the love most of us have for Downton Abbey, this is a book which you can bask in and drink your fill of another, almost idyllic, world. As such, it is an excellent antidote to the pressures and stresses of the modern world.
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D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.