Fillets of Plaice

by Gerald Durrell

Five short stories, wonderfully descriptive and intriguing, often had me laughing. While I (mostly) enjoyed reading them, I think it\’s really best to start somewhere else, if you\’re new to reading Durrell. They don\’t have a lot of introduction, are unrelated incidents that Durrell realized later in life he had never fit into any of his other books, so he put them together here. His brother suggested the title, as a joke- it has nothing to do with the contents.

\”The Birthday Party\” is a story from Durrell\’s childhood on Corfu, where his family decide to give their mother a birthday outing in a boat, which turns into a huge mishap. I felt sorry for the woman, and the only reason I could laugh during this one was I knew that it all came right in the end. It\’s packed with amusing (or insufferable, however you like to look at it) characters, but it\’s really more funny if you already know how these people relate to each other from the Corfu trilogy.

\”A Transport of Terrapins\” – This was my favorite of the stories. Set later on, when Durrell\’s family had returned to England, and he found his first job as assistant in a pet shop. He loves the animals and wants to enrich their dull cages, but has to find a way to do so without offending the owner (who doesn\’t have a lot of interest in or knowledge about the animals himself, but as the boss has his pride). Later in the story Durrell meets another eccentric shop owner in town who keeps birds, with a curious way of running his shop. Then there\’s an older gentleman he meets on the bus over a spilled box of baby turtles, who invites him to his house to play a game. He is at first suspicious of this man\’s intentions, but it turns out to be honest and they strike up a nice friendship over strategy games with tin soldiers.

\”A Question of Promotion\”- Jumping ahead years, this one takes place in Africa, when Durrell was in the Cameroons collecting wild animals. That\’s not the focus. Most of the story is about plans he helped an acquaintance make for a dinner party to impress a visiting District Officer. There\’s pages and pages of conversation between Durrell and the other people he gathered together to help plan the meal- difficult because they lacked supplies- but it is lively and amusing enough. When they event finally takes place, all their careful planning meets with one huge accident. It was hilarious. However this was during time of British colonial rule, so there are unfortunately some attitudes towards both native servants and women, which I know some readers would find offensive.

\”A Question of Degrees\”- the one story that had me cringing. Durrell is ordered by his doctor to take some rest, sent to a place he calls \”the loony bin\” but the doctor insists sternly is \”a highly respectable nursing home that specializes in nervous complaints\”. So, mental health in-patient. While there, Durrell suffers a series of very bad nosebleeds, that won\’t stop, so he is sent to the hospital. Twice. The first time, the taxi takes them to the wrong place. The doctor is careful and efficient, and it\’s all over quickly. The second time, the doctor is very rough with crude methods that leave Durrell in worse pain than ever- and it ends with him staggering back to his bed in the inpatient facility, given a shot of drugs to wipe out the pain and fall asleep, wishing he\’d gone to the wrong hospital again instead. I guess it was supposed to be funny, but it had me feeling sick the way some Mr. Bean episodes do.

\”Ursula\”- The last story is about a young woman Durrell dated for a time. She was incredibly vivacious, with a loud animated way of speaking that always drew attention whenever they went out. Durrell soon found himself in a number of embarrassing situations, especially the day he took her to a Mozart concert and she brought a dog in a basket. Of course it escaped. The nice thing about this story is that Durrell comes to see the tenderhearted, kind side of Ursula, even though her manner is sometimes off-putting to others. I had a very personal reaction to the this one. Like the main character, I sometimes use the wrong word when speaking. In my case, it\’s often mispronunciation rather than the malapropisms Ursula frequently uttered- but I could oddly sympathize with her. I don\’t angrily insist I\’m always right, like she did- but I do feel criticized and sometimes made the fool, depending on how the correction is worded. So the end of this book made me feel oddly unsettled and uncomfortable, because I identified with a character I felt the author intended us to laugh at.

Rating: 3/5                 216 pages, 1971

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