Nowadays this book has become famous again because of the ITV series on the Durrells which has been adapted from this book. This is why I went back to reread the book. I was glad I did.
Although my interest in natural history is rather less than the average person's (I don't even watch wildlife documentaries) the bits about animals are interesting partly because of the anthropomorphisation of them. But that is not the main point of this book. There are two features of this book which make it superlative.
Firstly, there is the brilliant characterisation of a family of eccentrics (and their eccentric friends) who interact in dialogue and events that are some of the funniest I have read. Books are often described as 'laugh out loud. I hardly ever do. With this book I couldn't help laughing. On more than one occasion.
Secondly there is the jaw-droppingly brilliant descriptions.
- “The sea lifted smooth blue muscles of wave as it stirred in the dawn light, and the foam of our wake spread gently behind us like a white peacock's tail. glinting with bubbles. The sky was pale and staying with yellow on the eastern horizon. Ahead lay a chocolate-brown smudge of land, huddled in mist, with a frill of foam at its base. This was Corfu” (p 14)
- “The appearance of a rather pompous judge wearing a wig several times too small.” (p 50)
- “Then he rounded the curve of the road and there was only the pale sky with a new moon floating in it like a silver feather, and the soft twittering of his flute dying away in the dusk.” (p 53)
- “After the swim, my body felt heavy and relaxed, and my skin as though it were covered with a silky crust of salt.” (p 66)
- “Then suddenly the moon, enormous, wine-red, edged herself over the fretted battlement of mountains, and threw a straight, blood-red path across the dark sea. The owls appeared now, drifting from tree to tree as silently as flakes of soot, hooting in astonishment as the moon rise higher and higher, turning to pink, then gold, and finally riding in a nest of stars, like a silver bubble.” (p 145)
- “In a few days small white clouds started their winter parade, trooping across the sky, soft and chubby, long, languorous, and unkempt, or small and crisp as feathers, and driving them before it, like an ill-assorted flock of sheep, would come the wind.” (p 182)
But it is the characters who make the book come alive:
- Larry, the writer, eternally asserting his own intellectual superiority, with a wonderful line in stupendously rude put-downs:
- “With a point of view as limited as yours, you can hardly expect me to listen to it.” (p 55)
- “Why should we have to fall all over the old hag because she's a relation, when the really sensible thing to do would be to burn her at the stake?” (p 198)
- “You are always ready with the apt platitude to sum up a catastrophe. How I envy you your ability to be inarticulate in the face of Fate.” (p 242)
- Lesley the man of action, eternally keen on guns and shooting, who builds a boat for Gerry: “the sounds of sawing, hammering, and blasphemy floated round from the back veranda.” (p 163)
- Margo, always looking for love, always getting things wrong: “before you go throwing stones you should look for the beam in your eye.” (p 254)
- Mother, forever trying to make the piece, and always finding nice spots to be buried in.
- Spiro, the taxi driver and incredible Mr Fix-It, stealing goldfish for Gerry from the King of Greece’s Corfu residence, and pluralising all his words: “Whys donts yous have someones who can talks your own language?” (p 24)
- Theo the fellow naturalist, with a fine line in puns. Talking about a black-headed gull he says that “all the nice gulls love a sailor” (p 296) and then says these birds can be “terribly gullible” (p 297)
A magical memoir. June 2018; 308 pages