My Family and Other Animals is the first title in The Corfu Trilogy, memoirs of British naturalist, Gerald Durrell, who is captivated by nature and animals and the study of them from a young age. It is the inspiration behind the Masterpiece Theatre series, The Durrells in Corfu.
I haven’t seen the PBS series. I have seen trailers for it and was intrigued by them, partly because I was attracted to the period feel and partly because I have enjoyed other Masterpiece Theatre series. After reading the first book in this trilogy and after reading more about the PBS series, I’m intrigued but cautious. I can’t imagine I would like the show more than the book … which I enjoyed very much. I’m not saying I would not give the series a chance, but I know words would be pared down to dialogue — which may or may not be true to the book — and it would be missing all of the beautiful narrative language from the books.
I knew I was in for something good when even the book dedications in the opening pages were full of humor. The title, of course, is also light and funny, suggesting that his family was just another species of interesting animals to be studied. After reading a chapter or two, I persuaded both my mother and father to read it and helped them download the trilogy for Kindle. Amazon prime members can read the Kindle version of the trilogy for free. The trilogy includes Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods.
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I thought Dad would like the book, because the main character, the writer himself, Gerald or Gerry, is a boy with scientific curiosities, much like Dad, and I felt Dad would appreciate the humor. The story also involves a few boating adventures I thought my father would like. I thought Mom would like it, because she often prefers biographies to fiction, and she enjoyed James Herriot’s books. While Durrell’s and Herriot’s style and subject are a bit different, they do have a few things in common … animals and funny anecdotes, which mostly involve animals. Neither parent has yet finished the first book, but it seems, so far, that my recommendation to them is a good one.
I mentioned earlier that the book is set in a past time period. It was tricky for me to exactly place the period for the setting at first. I don’t remember reading mention of any years, but there were a few clues. One of Gerry’s mentors, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, fought in World War I. The book mentions “an ancient Dodge” and a gramophone and other references to the technology of the time. At first, I placed the period somewhere in the twenties. Then, I read on to a scene where the mother of the family was described as wearing a frilly and old-fashioned bathing costume which the daughter describes as looking like it were from 1920. I was able to place the period more precisely when I learned from durrell.org, that Gerald was born in 1925. The first book describes happenings while he was ten years old which must then be 1935.
The book is divided into three sections themed by three villas where the family lived in Corfu: the strawberry-pink villa, the daffodil-yellow villa and the snow-white villa. Their reasons for moving each time, at least the way they are described in the book, are all humorous. The family moves from England to Corfu, because they are all ill and the eldest son, Larry, suggests it, seemingly on a whim. The climate would be better for their health. The second time, they move to a larger villa, because Larry, who is an aspiring writer, has invited seven or eight of his artistic friends to stay with them. Later, they move to a smaller villa, because an annoying relative from England wants to stay with them and they need an excuse not to take her in.
My father, after beginning his reading, got curious about the island and did some armchair exploring via Google maps. He found a location on the island labeled as the Durrell Family White House. I can only suppose this is the snow-white villa. If you go to the link, you can explore it yourself, get a good view of the villa and the sea and a sign that says, “White House Restaurant.”
Here is a view of the sea from Corfu, looking towards the Albanian coast.
Many of the stories in the book involve Gerry’s family, not just the animals that interested him … thus, the title. He describes his eldest brother Larry as someone absorbed with books, taking two cases of books with him to Corfu, and writing, always typing away at his typewriter. It did make me wonder if Larry became a successful writer or if Gerald became the writer of the family. I did find out that Lawrence Durrell published several books as well, both fiction and travel writings, including the Alexandria Quartet.
His brother Leslie is described as someone obsessed with outdoorsy sports like hunting and boating. He does build Gerry a boat as a birthday gift, which Gerry names the Bootle-Bumtrinket. I really wondered at the meaning of “bumtrinket,” since the boys’ mother seems a bit shocked and embarrassed at the name, and because I know “bum” is Brit-talk for butt. The only definition I could find is that a bumtrinket is “an annoying person.”
Sister Margo is described as someone very concerned with her appearance and worried about her weight and acne. Gerry himself becomes fascinated with wild life and spends a lot of time, being outdoors and studying insect life, bird life and other animals. He is frequently bringing home insects in jars or other small animals he finds and keeps as pets. In this first book, you will meet his dog, Roger, a tortoise named Achilles, a pigeon named Quasimodo, a scops owl named Ulysses, a gecko named Geronimo, a mantis named Cicely, some magpies, simply called Magenpies based on their Greek friend’s pronunciation of the bird, a gull — Larry calls it an albatross — named Alecko and a baby donkey called Sally.
More dogs join the family, including two messy puppies named Widdle and Puke, and their mother’s dog, a Dandie Dinmont terrier named Dodo. There are also some un-named animals, and animals that Gerry simply observes but doesn’t capture. You’ll learn about Quasimodo’s eccentricities and love of music, doing his own version of waltzes and marches to music on the gramophone, Achilles choosing body parts on which to practice mountaineering and the trouble it caused when Dodo becomes popular with all of the male dogs in the neighborhood.
The writer does a wonderful job of interspersing stories of his family drama, often goofy incidents, with descriptions of his natural history discoveries. I sometimes wondered at his powerful memory of detail in these early events of his life. I think I found the explanation, as Gerry had a series of tutors, and one of them encouraged him to note down his observations of nature and also to keep a diary.
I would recommend the book for those who love animals, enjoy travel writing, enjoy funny stories involving family life and animals and for those who enjoy beautiful, descriptive narrative. Here is an example …
“This doll’s house garden was a magic land, a forest of flowers through which roamed creatures I had never seen before. Among the thick, silky petals of each rose bloom lived tiny crab-like spiders that scuttled sideways when disturbed. Their small translucent bodies were colored to match the flowers they inhabited: pink, ivory, wine red or buttery yellow. On the rose stems, encrusted with green flies, ladybirds moved like newly painted toys; ladybirds pale red with large black spots, ladybirds apple red with brown spots, ladybirds orange with gray-and-black freckles. Rotund and amiable, they prowled and fed among the anaemic flocks of greenfly. Carpenter bees, like furry, electric-blue bears, zigzagged among the flowers, growling fatly and busily…”