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My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell

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Genre: Autobiography (may be a bit fictionalised, but who cares!)
Rating: 4.5/5

When you are down and out and in need of some form of strong restorative, My Family and Other Animals is the medicine to resort to. Contrary to popular belief, you need not be in love with animals (though it certainly helps if you are) to read this book. It is a slap on the face of turmoil and a reminder that when life is down in the dumps, there are always a few cicadas around to marvel at (or whatever catches your fancy). 

My Family and Other Animals is not the first of Gerald Durrell's writing expeditions, but it sure is his masterpiece. By the time he had begun writing this book, he was a reasonably seasoned hand at mounting expeditions and collecting animals all over the globe. In 1956, recovering from a bout of jaundice, Durrell penned this sweet little piece of work about his life as a child on the Greek island of Corfu. 

My Family and Other Animals is a collection of short stories, mapping the eclectic Durrell family. Gerald was the youngest of the lot, with a passion for everything that moved or was rooted (mostly moved). He was preceded by Lawrence 'Larry' Durrell; the eldest, an aspiring - and later highly successful - author1 with lofty ideals and a weird bunch of friends. Leslie Durrell was the younger brother, mad about guns and a regular rogue. Margaret 'Margo' Durrell was Gerald's elder sister, who seems to have been like any of us teenage girls, worrying about pimples, boys and surviving crazy brothers. The mother of the brood is a calm, affectionate English woman, gluing the incongruous characters under the same roof. 

The stories vacillate between personal references and extensive descriptions about the beautiful flora and fauna of Corfu, and their ultimate subjugation and housing by the young Gerald. Even for non-lovers and neutrals, it would be impossible to fall in love with these creatures, the way they have been described. Besides, the book resonates the author's love for the Greek island - its sunshine, its waters, its people and the culture. Every society has its quirks (the absolute absence of plumbed-in toilets, the splash of colours of the house-walls) and the English family from the land of perpetual drizzle and grey skies, does its best to settle in this Mediterranean island. The family receives plenty of help from the locals - the over-protective cabbie Spiro, the shy, soft-spoken and immensely talented Dr. Theodore 'Theo' Stephanides and the 'lugubrious' house-help Lugaretzia. Between Larry's mind-boggling parties for his friends and Margo's fascinations with Gerald's many tutors, life in Corfu is an endless, light-hearted vacation. 

My Family and Other Animals is not strictly autobiographical; if public records are to be believed, there have been a few omissions and alterations to events and characterisation. I personally felt bad when I came to know that my idyll of childhood was not really so sun-soaked, but this isn't the first - or the last time - that this has happened. Another very dear author of mine - James Herriot, also followed a similar ploy, using a pseudonym and changing names and dates. In a way, I'm glad they choose to leave out the darker details from their books, because, honestly, life is tough one way or another. 

Gerald Durrell is a most entertaining writer. He may not always be riotously funny, but his work is based on witty introspection and finding the funny in the serious. Though not his primary occupation (multi-faceted as he was, he is renowned as a conservationist and a zookeeper), Durrell's literary work is a delight to return to, over and over again. Greece may no longer be the paradise Durrell noted in My Family and Other Animals, but no one can take away its sun, its sea and the lovely creatures that abound its islands.

1 Lawrence Durrell was one of those shortlisted for the 1962 Nobel Prize for his masterful The Alexandria Quartet; but lost out to John Steinbeck, presumably for not having proven enough mettle. What a time this must have been, to have authors such as these jostle for the top award!

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