Friday, August 3, 2012

My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Gerald Durrell’s perennial classic, My Family and Other Animals, enchants and delights with its humour, energy and atmosphere of childhood creativity. While the book is primarily an entertainment that transports the reader to its exotic locales, it also demonstrates the importance of nurturing childhood enthusiasms and hobbies.

It’s hard to review such a faultless classic. What else can be said about Gerald Durrell’s childhood memoir of five years spent on the Greek island of Corfu? Every page is a tonic and a delight, written in a fresh, uncluttered prose that constantly uplifts. Durrell has a natural power of description that breathes life and good cheer into his subject matter. It’s a book that will make you long for the carefree adventures and uninhibited creativity of childhood.

The book was originally intended as a work of natural history, with a few nostalgic undertones, but once Durrell started writing his family into the book he couldn’t get them out. Hence My Family and Other Animals is a  mix of family memoir and natural history. Durrell’s siblings, and his somewhat eccentric widowed mother, provide much of the book’s humour. Mrs Durrell is forever ambling around the house with her exotic cookbooks, while Larry, the oldest brother, proves to be a bookish know-it-all. Leslie, the other brother, is a fond of guns and hunting, and the only sister, Margo, is devoted to fad diets and acne cures.

The comic episodes are leavened with Durrell’s natural history writings, which describe the island’s varied species of bugs, bird and beasts. It’s hard not to look fondly on the young Durrell (he went to Corfu when he was eights years old) as he eagerly collects wild pets, keeps river snakes in the bath and adopts every scraggly dog he meets. His great enthusiasm and energy, his sheer creativity in collecting, cataloguing, and creating his miniature zoo, makes it clear that the grown man is already there in the child. It’s also heartening to read how his mother indulged all of Durrell’s wild and impractical schemes. Nothing seems to phase her. The book is almost a lesson in the importance of encouraging youthful hobbies, schemes and enthusiasms, as they may lead to greater personal development and promising careers in adult life.

Perhaps this is the key to the success of My Family and Other Animals. It allows the reader to re-imagine their childhood, and highlights the importance of youthful adventure as a way to genuine enlightenment.

My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell. Published by Puffin. ISBN: 9780141321875  RRP: $14.95