Why on earth are Gerald Durrell's books not better known? Or perhaps they are and I just didn't know much about them? I've never heard another reader mention this as a must read delight and yet that is exactly what it is. The book is based on his family's five years living on Corfu. It's hilarious, entertaining and even educational.
It's 1935 and England is in the midst of a grey and dreary season. How does any good British family escape such? Why by picking up and moving to the sunny Greek isle of Corfu on the recommendation of the eldest son's friend, of course. And what a good British family it is. Mother is a widow, eccentric and a bit flighty in a charming way. Larry, the eldest, is a writer and a bit of a stuffed shirt know-it-all; yes, Larry is famed author Lawrence Durrell. Leslie is a stereotypical gun-mad hunter, frequently striding out of the copses and fields with dinner. Margot is the flirty sister, interested in the local and ex-pat men around. And our author Gerry? Well, he's significantly younger than his siblings (he's only ten at the start while they are all young adults) and he's obsessed with animals, adopting them and wreaking havoc in the house and grounds. He's also a gifted writer with the impeccable timing of a truly funny comic.
Originally intended to be an account of the flora and fauna of Corfu, this is that and so much more. The antics of the Durrells and their good-natured bickering and tolerance of each others' foibles make this literally a laugh out loud book. Imagine Leslie coming downstairs in a towel immediately prior to a huge party, shivering and stammering because young Gerald has put a harmless snake in the tub with cool water to revive it from its heat stroke. There are Larry's elaborate machinations to keep Gerry's wild magpies, raised by him from babyhood, from going into Larry's room and capering about. The different colored birdie footprints in ink all across his manuscript is an image I'll be chuckling about for quite some time. There's the turtle that begs like a dog. A shallow-bottomed, oddly round boat made by Leslie named the Bootle-Bumtrinket. Two dogs named Widdle and Puke. I could go on and on.
But not all of the animal observations come via mishaps in the family. Durrell recounts his delight at finding things in their natural habitat and the care he took in examining them there. His childish curiousity was fervent and infectious. He is completely enchanted by nature in all its forms and that enchantment oozes from the very pages of the book. When the reader isn't laughing, she is reading steadily and delighting in the atmosphere and the place that is Corfu between the wars. Gorgeously written, there is a bit of nostalgia in these pages, especially as the reader knows, from the outset, that at the end, the Durrells pack up their belongings and head back to the grey skies and drizzle of England. I can't recommend this book highly enough, especially for people who like animals but also for those who appreciate well written, pastoral sorts of books or those who cherish eccentric characters and the kind of childhood that seems to be long extinct.
There's even a Masterpiece Theater production of this book. Methinks I'll have to hunt it down and and gather my family and assorted animals around to watch it in hopes it captures the wonder and the delight and the eccentricities of the book. And I will also, very definitely, be tracking down more of Mr. Durrell's books in hopes of sinking into similar, charming entertainments.