I read this for a book club meeting; it’s not my usual type of read, but I love Greece, and reading a memoir about life on a Greek island definitely appealed to me, especially in the dead of winter.
Gerald Durrell was a British naturalist who was also a zookeeper, a conservationist, and a writer. He was born in India but lived in England until he was ten, when his family moved to the island of Corfu. Written in 1956, this memoir tells the story of his life on the island from 1935-39, which was also his introduction to natural science. Durrell used the proceeds from this book to support his conservation efforts and create a Wildlife Park in the Channel Islands.
In the introduction, Durrell says that he meant to write mostly about natural history, but his family forced their way into the book. It’s lucky they did, because for me, Durrell’s writing about the family and other characters on the island made this book entertaining. Durrell’s writing really makes his family leap off the page. He lives with his mother, who has the patience of a saint, his oldest brother Larry (who is Lawrence Durrell, the novelist), sister Margot, and brother Leslie. Leslie is obsessed with shooting things, Margot with clothes and her weight, and Larry with books. At first I worried that his writing, especially about his sister, seemed a bit one-dimensional. But, how much does any ten year old really know his siblings? And it’s clearly Durrell’s intention to exaggerate for comic effect. It’s Larry who stands out, and not in a good way — but I’m guessing he wasn’t really as obnoxious as he’s portrayed.
That is not to say that the animals, insects, and flowers that make up the book weren’t also entertaining. There were a few standouts – one is a description of an epic battle between a gecko and a praying mantis, and another is the ridiculous depiction of one of the Durrell family’s dogs. But in general, I was much more interested in people than in plants and insects, so I’ll admit that the book dragged a bit when people weren’t present.
I was most interested in ten-year-old Durrell’s approach to science. If I lived on an island, I’d be an appreciative observer. But Durrell really gets his hands dirty, to an extent that often made me uncomfortable – for example, taking eggs out of nests and baby animals from their mothers, capturing snakes, caging birds, etc. At the same time, he develops a deep understanding of animal behavior, and given the work he goes on to do, I have to think that nature has benefited overall from his interest.
It was interesting to read this book directly after I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, because both books deal so much with our relationship with animals, and the conflict inherent in animal research: it’s important that we learn about animals, but it’s not always in their best interest. I’m imputing this last idea to Durrell’s book more than it’s actually there, because I read these two books one after the other.
I was frequently reminded that this book is about a family that clearly has financial security. They are able to buy several houses on the island and no one in the family has to work. They are treated as “lords” by the islanders. This is definitely a book that could not have been written without privilege.
As an aside, I met with a book club to discuss this book, which was great because I learned much more about the Durrells, and Corfu, including the fact that this book has been made into a PBS series. The book club was a little more in love with this book overall than I was, but I enjoyed the discussion and it gave me greater appreciation for the book. One thing we discussed was whether Durrell’s mother is portrayed positively or negatively. My own feeling is that Durrell’s mother provides her children with amazing experiences, and a freedom to explore that most children don’t have. On the other hand, she seems very passive with regard to Larry, who ends up winning most of their disputes, and the other children. But maybe that would be typical in a family with an adult son, where the father is deceased. Or maybe she was tougher than she’s described.
As a work of nonfiction, this book is a fascinating look at the life of an interesting family in an interesting place and time. It’s both a humorous memoir, and at the same time, a personal look at the early life of a scientist.
Challenges: This book applies to nearly all my challenges: Reading Nonfiction, Reading All Around the World (Greece), Back to the Classics (a classic travel narrative), and Read Harder (a book about nature).