Birds, Beasts and Relatives

by Gerald Durrell

Delightful, funny, curious as always, Durrell had me laughing on page four. He claims in the forward, that during a family reunion, his siblings and mother complained of what he had written in his first memoir of their life on the island of Corfu. Then they all reminded each other: well, at least he didn\’t tell this story – or the other- which was terribly embarrassing, and so of course he wrote this book to tell those stories which were left out the first time around. Including: the time his sister got mixed up with a group of spiritualists (who held seances), the time he longed to buy a dancing bear off a gypsy, the time his older brother was taken to court by a Greek peasant who insisted that Gerry\’s dog had eaten five of his prize turkeys. This book takes place more or less at the same time as My Family and Other Animals, overlapping without a lot of repeats. It\’s full of interesting and colorful characters- both his family members, their friends, visitors, and acquaintances around the island- and many amusingly outrageous incidents. Sadly, I couldn\’t help reading between the lines this time around, having learned what Durrell never really spoke of in his books- that they fled England because the family was ruined by his mother\’s alcoholism, that the family was disliked by many on the island, considered scandalous for their behavior- and it\’s true that in the book Gerald frequently mentions them drinking- he must have been only seven or eight at the time, yet he is given wine by his older brothers, champagne by an elderly woman he visits (to acquire an injured barn own) coffee by his tutor, etc. It sounds like a wonderfully carefree existence- him as a kid roaming the island, observing and collecting animals- yet I wonder if there wasn\’t a bit of neglect in there, too. One time he ran over to a neighbor\’s house and watched a young, newly married peasant woman giving birth- had a front-row seat and described it in detail, matter-of-factly. There\’s also the callously blunt way the family talks about his sister Margo\’s struggles with her weight and her skin condition. I\’d be embarrassed if I were her.

Aside from all that, I did love the descriptions of the wildlife and other animals Durrell acquired or observed in nature. His family gave him a young donkey for his birthday, and it enabled him to explore more of the island. He met fishermen and older gentlemen also interested in nature, who took him out on the reef, or wading in the lake, to collect stuff. He describes crabs that camouflage themselves by sticking bits of seaweed (or whatever objects he gave them when corralled in a barren pool) on their shells, elvers migrating through a dry streambed to the lake, a diving bell spider (who ate her children), a pet owl and a family of young hedgehogs. Most wonderful was reading about the time he caught half a dozen small seahorses, and kept them for a brief time in an aquarium in his room. Durrell didn\’t have any kind of filter or means of water circulation as a kid. He tells of hauling buckets- going down to the beach to get fresh seawater for them- five times a day in order to keep the tank clean enough. I know what work it is enough to haul a few buckets down the hall to the nearest sink! No wonder he kept them just a brief time before letting them go in the sea again.

And that\’s just scratching the surface. There\’s so much more!

Rating: 3/5            248 pages, 1969

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