My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Reviewed by Simon

SFE-durrell-spineSlightly Foxed Editions often introduce me to books I know nothing about – hidden gems waiting to be unearthed – and that is wonderful. What they’ve done this time, with Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is introduce me, instead, to a book that has been hovering on my peripheries as long as I can remember. Perhaps I would never have actually got around to reading it if it hadn’t arrived in this beautiful packaging (and Slightly Foxed Editions are unrivalled in their compact elegance), and my life would certainly have been the poorer for it. My Family and Other Animals (1954) is an absolute joy; a real laugh-out-loud book.

Let me forestall any doubters from the outset. Perhaps the title, or the author’s reputation, will make you think that this memoir is for natural history enthusiasts alone. I can reassure you. Few people could be less interested in natural history than me – certainly not in the insect world that fascinates the infant (and adult) Gerald so absolutely – and I loved more or less every moment of this book. Durrell opens his introduction to the book thus:

This is the story of a five-year sojourn that I and my family made on the Greek island of Corfu. It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.

Well, thank goodness for that ‘mistake’ (which, I am sure, is disingenuousness on Durrell’s part), as any page which discusses his family is rich in humour and delight. True, there are sections which are occupied instead with the habits of tortoises, geckos, or terrapins, but these did not have half the appeal (to me, at least). His family are a series of brilliant creations. I use the term advisedly, as they are (as Simon Barnes’ affectionate introduction explains) rather exaggerated and selective portraits. Gerald – Gerry – is the youngest of four siblings, who have moved to Corfu with their widowed mother (although nowhere does the narrative mention this widowhood; thank goodness for introductions). The others are Larry, Leslie, and Margo. This passage comes quite late in the book, but serves as a very good introduction to the interests and activities of the others – as Larry attempts to advise them on their areas of expertise. (Larry, incidentally, is the author Laurence Durrell.)

Larry was always full of ideas about things of which he had no experience. He advised me on the best way to study nature, Margo on clothes, Mother on how to manage the family and pay off her overdraft, and Leslie on shooting. He was perfectly safe, for he knew that none of us could retaliate by telling him the best way to write. Invariably, if any member of the family had a problem, Larry knew the best way to solve it; if anyone boasted of an achievement, Larry could never see what the fuss was about it – the thing was perfectly easy to do, providing one used one’s brain. It was due to this attitude of pomposity that he set the villa on fire.

Isn’t that a sumptuous closing line to the paragraph? This memoir is one bizarre adventure after another, tied together with the credible dynamics of a family who love each other – for, if they did not, they would not spend a moment in each other’s company.

Truth be told, although I came to love them all myself, rather, I would have found any of them monstrous in person. Well, perhaps not monstrous; just monstrously selfish. Larry (as we see) is depicted as cocky and indifferent to the struggles of others; Leslie hunts (which is enough about him); Gerry regularly introduces wild or poisonous animals to the house with no concern for the others and their lack of enthusiasm. Margo is merely superficial and flighty, while Mother is a perfect paragon of patience.

The broad brushstrokes with which these brothers and sister are painted is doubtless not fair to them, but provides a great deal of amusement. Larry’s insistence that they move house to allow for more house guests (“it’s common sense”) is amusing; the tattered remains of a dinner party that ends with guests and dogs soaked and covered with feathers is hilarious. Throughout, Durrell is a master of understatement, dryly undercutting his outlandish anecdotes so that they feel like mere exasperation at family members being eccentric. And that somehow makes it all the more amusing. As does his belief that, say, bringing a scorpion and her babies to the dinner table is an entirely reasonable action.

Those five years on Corfu seem nigh on paradisiacal, and reading them is like being invited into that paradise. There is simply no moment of gloom or sadness – which is astonishing, given that the Second World War was taking place, and their father had died seven years earlier. Instead of seeming irresponsible, it is the perfect depiction of a halcyon moment in a young boy’s life. And it is our great privilege to be able to share it – and an even greater privilege to be able to do so in that pinnacle of publishing, the Slightly Foxed Edition.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors and draws the line at cats.

Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (London, Slightly Foxed, 2014) ISBN 9781906562700, hardback, 380pp.

14 Comments

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  2. LauraC

    I loved, loved, loved this book when I read it aloud to my children probably 10 years ago. I have since found a used copy and reread it a few years ago. We watched the movie too, which was quite good, as I remember. This was an all-round wonderful book and I would love to one day have that beautiful Slightly Foxed edition.

    1. Simon

      Isn’t it an absolute joy? And no better place to enjoy it than between the covers of a gorgeous SF edition.

  3. I’ve been cataloguing ALL my books lately (yes a huge task but I’m having fun). A few weeks ago I was delighted to discover an old Penguin edition of My Family and Other Animals. I had no idea it was there (It must have come in with a bunch of books from my partner’s parents’ house when it was sold in 2007.)

    Amazing what happens when I get into the stacks. More delightful reading ahead.

    1. Simon

      It was such a complete joy! I’m definitely going to have to hunt out the two sequels now.

  4. Brigitte

    For something completely different yet equally hilarious, I’d also highly recommend ‘Larry’ (Lawrence Durrell’s) satire on the diplomatic corps: Antrobus Complete. Absolutely nothing like his ‘literary’ novels.

  5. One of my favourite books of all time. Now you’ve made me want to reread it and also get around to Douglas Botting’s biography which has been languishing on my tbr shelf for years.

  6. I’ve just had to ward off a faint – my library (a den of mainstream fiction) owns the whole trilogy! A hold has been placed and since I’m working this afternoon will be tracking it down for myself…thanks, Simon.

  7. We had this book read out loud to us in class when we were doing arts and crafts project in primary school. I was useless at crafty things, but I remember the book well, loved it so much. I have to find a copy of it to keep!

  8. Maggie Forrest

    I read this as a teenager and the warm glow has persisted through the years. Parts of Corfu that haven’t been ruined by the tourist industry still reflect GD’s writing. My original book is still on my bookshelf.

  9. I must echo all of the above – a wonderful book! So glad it is receiving yet another revival, and in a lovely Slightly Foxed edition. I grew up with Gerald Durrell’s books, and own most (if not all) of them in tattered paperback form. I re-read the best of them every few years. The best are indeed the ones which concentrate equally on the humans, though I admit that the animal anecdotes are fascinating as well. “My Family” does stand out among these memoirs. Close behind are the early animal-hunting-expedition books, such as the Africa-set “The Bafut Beagles”, and “The Drunken Forest” and “the Whispering Land”, both concerning South America. Stellar.

  10. LizF

    I first read My Family and Other Animals when I was 10 and it was pressed on me by my insect mad friend who thought I needed to widen my nature reading from ponies!
    That was forty-five years ago and the scorpions in a matchbox episode still makes me cry with laughter while the book as a whole began a lifelong love of Corfu (so long as you avoid the party central resorts)
    I can heartily second Barb’s recommendation of some of Gerald Durrell’s other books too – wonderfully funny.
    Talking of books which made me cry with laughter – if you haven’t read Dr Xargle’s Book of Earth Tiggers (can’t remember who wrote it but the wonderful Tony Bradman did the illustrations) make haste to do so. No cat person should miss it.

  11. Meredith Melia

    I think this might be my favourite book – certainly in my top five (and I’m with you on the animals v humans).

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