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My Family and Other Animals (Penguin Essentials) Paperback – 3 Aug 2006
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About the Author
Gerald Durrell (1925-1995) moved from England to Corfu with his family at the age of eight. He spent much of his time studying the island's wildlife, and surprising his family by keeping lots of very unusual pets in very unexpected places. He grew up to be a famous naturalist and conservationalist, leading expeditions to exotic places such as Argentina, Sierra Leone, Assam and Madagascar. Over his lifetime he presented many TV shows, and wrote 37 books, including MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS and its two sequels, BIRDS, BEASTS AND RELATIVES and THE GARDEN OF THE GODS. He founded Jersey Zoo in 1959 as a centre for the conservation of endangered species, and in 1963 he created the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust - later renamed Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust - of which his wife Lee is still Honorary Director. He was awarded the OBE in 1982.
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However……..at the time I read this, Durrell’s sensibilities gave me clear indication that I was, after all, not going to be cut out to be a naturalist myself. Although a clear lover of the wild, unconfined, natural world, and of the animal kingdom, he quickly made me realise that I was a definitely restricted speciesist – plants were wonderful, but my real love was for the warm-blooded furred and feathered creatures. Durrell delights in all of it, the slithering, the buzzing, the finny, the scaled, and anything which scuttles on somewhere between 6, 8 and a multiplicity of uncountable legs.
I had utterly forgotten (carefully buried the memory) from whence my shrieking horror of a species I have never met, in the flesh, came from:
“Up on the hills among the dark cypress and the heather shoals of butterflies danced and twisted like wind-blown confetti, pausing now and then on a leaf to lay a salvo of eggs. The grasshoppers and locusts whirred like clockwork under my feet, and flew drunkenly across the heather, their leaves shining in the sun. Among the myrtles the mantids moved, lightly, carefully, swaying slightly, the quintessence of evil. They were lank and green, with chinless faces and monstrous globular eyes, frosty gold, with an expression of intense, predatory madness in them. The crooked arms, with their fringes of sharp teeth, would be raised in mock supplication to the insect world, so humble, so fervent, trembling slightly when a butterfly flew too close”
It is (I hope) clear what a wonderfully observant, carefully crafting writing Durrell is, as well as, of course, ditto, a naturalist. He regarded his older brother, Laurence, as the writer of the family, and only began his own (highly successful) books about his idyllic, (in his eyes, as a young naturalist) eccentric, anarchic time on Corfu, and his later books about his zoological expeditions around the world as an adult, in order to make money to finance them, and his own zoo.
That quoted paragraph shows also a rather assured and filmic, dramatic sense. He surely knows how to craft a scene, to build narrative, climax, change of pace and mood. I was lulled into a deceptively tranquil, dreamy, Edenic scene, with those wafts of butterflies, before the scene darkens, and the reader can almost feel a tension rising mood music, ratcheted up to the insecty equivalent of that shower scene in Psycho!
Durrell is a wonderful writer. Here there is a mixture of no doubt absolutely precise observation of the natural world and a certain amount of writerly shaping to emphasise the entertaining aspect provided by his strongly defined, individual, family members: remarkably tolerant Mother, the almost comically artistic/intellectual elder brother Larry, with his equally Bohemian ‘set’ paying visits to what Larry was offering as open house artistic colony with sunshine, vino, and food on tap. Gerry’s other brother Leslie, the practical one, happily tinkering with building boats, cleaning guns, and shooting the wildlife, and sister Margo, defined as romantic and a bit of a magnet for local and visiting swains. There are various brilliantly structured set pieces around Gerry and a succession of arriving and departing tutors, vainly trying to find ways to teach the budding naturalist the basics of an academic syllabus, spicing the dull stuff, ‘If it takes x number of men x hours to dig a trench’ with inserts culled from the natural world – forget men and trenches, substitute tortoises looking to safely lay their eggs.
Best of all is an extended dramatic French farce sketch, involving snakes and renegade birds discovered in unlikely places, during a huge all day party, for family, visiting friends and locals. This had me snorting, chuckling and guffawing in an otherwise silent tube carriage. Irrepressibly joyous writing.
“Tea would arrive, the cakes squatting on cushions of cream, toast in a melting shawl of butter, cups agleam, and a faint wisp of steam rising from the teapot spout”
This book, and its sequels, was turned into a successful TV mini-series in the late 80s. One I felt unable to watch. The power of Durrell’s writing creating those images of mantid malevolence meant I was scared in case they featured in the natural history bits!
There is such joy, such delight, such warmth in the writing, and, like the family, falling under the spell of the landscape, the reader falls in love with Durrell’s gloriously unclichéd, visceral evocation
“Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquillity, a timelessness, about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality”
The Corfu Tourist board must love this book......it really makes you want to jump on a plane!
Gerald Durrell excels at transporting us to a world of childish innocence and wonder, and I found myself smiling and laughing as I read my way through.
I loved the descriptions of the characters - pompous and irritating Larry, larger than life Spiro, hypochondriac Lugaretzia.... It felt as though you were there with them, and could feel Gerry's exasperation and fondness for them all.
The animals, of course, play a major part in the tale and again the child like amazement at them all is wonderful and heart warming to read.
Although the book is fairly old now, and set in a bygone era, it doesn't feel that way at all, and I am really looking forward to reading Durrell's other works.
Some have said I should watch the TV adaptations of this book, but I doubt I will as I've enjoyed the book so much I don't want to tarnish what I have in my mind.
I can't recommend this enough!
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