My Family and Other Animals
is an autobiographical novel written by Gerald Durrell in 1956. He tells the story of his time living on the Greek island Corfu with his widowed mother, siblings, and all the fauna they encountered.
The novel opens in dreary England. The family consists of the widow, Mrs. Durrell; the eldest son, Larry; the gun obsessed Leslie; the diet obsessed sister, Margo; and the youngest son, Gerald, the narrator of the story, along with their dog, Roger. Each member of the family is suffering from an ailment that Larry believes is due to the wet, somber weather.
Larry demands that they move, completely relocating to the island of Corfu where the weather is better. Mrs. Durrell does not see how this is possible since they just bought their house in England, but Larry is relentless. They find themselves on a boat headed for the island with their dog and all the things needed for each of their hobbies.
Gerald takes items related to natural history, and his family watches with anticipation as they finally set foot on the island. At the hotel, they make plans to spend the day house hunting, but they are not successful. They want to find a house with a bathroom, and so they head out again determined to check the box. They are accosted by a group of taxi drivers who are pushy and determined to get their fare, but they are rescued from the situation by an English-speaking taxi driver, Spiro.
Spiro, all the while telling his history, takes them to a strawberry pink villa after a series of twists and turns. They feel instantly that this is the place for them. Gerald spends all his time at first wandering among the groves and making friends with the locals, the most interesting of which is the mute Rose-Beetle man. He sells Gerald a tortoise on their first meeting, and the two become good, if silent, friends.
Mrs. Durrell puts a stop to Gerald’s unhindered excursions when she hires a tutor, George. George is a polymath, but he recognizes that Gerald’s love of bugs and animals cannot be stopped. He decides to integrate zoology into their daily lessons.
Meanwhile, Larry has decided to invite friends to stay on the island, and when Mrs. Durrell protests that there is not enough space, he talks her into moving again. This time the villa is yellow, and with the increase in space, Larry's friends begin to arrive. They are wild, creative, and completely over Mrs. Durrell’s head.
The increase in space also allows Gerald more opportunity to pursue his hobby, but George leaves the island. Gerald has a mishap with a box of scorpions and is sentenced to a French tutor, a Belgian Consul. Summer comes, and Mrs. Durrell hires yet another tutor, Peter, a student on vacation from Oxford. Peter is hard on Gerald but soon takes a liking to Margo. He is kicked out of the house soon after.
That spring, their great aunt Hermione writes to tell them she is thinking of visiting. No one in the family wants this to happen, so they move to a smaller villa to have an excuse to refuse her. This villa is white and located on the top of a hill. Gerald discovers it is covered in praying mantises, which delight him. His final tutor is the strange Mr. Kralefsky, a man with an obsession for birds. He meets the man’s mother who is obsessed with flowers. Gerald takes great joy in her theory that flowers have a language of their own.
Mr. Kralefsky tells Mrs. Durrell that it is time for Gerald to have formal schooling, and she informs her family that they will be returning to England. Despite their protests, she prevails, and they pack up their things, including animals collected on the island. On the voyage back, Mrs. Durrell discovers that the authorities have classified her and her family as a traveling circus, which Larry claims is their recompense for the mistake of leaving Corfu.
The book is a humorous look at Gerald’s eccentric family, but it is also a bit of a natural history book as well. Young Gerald is fascinated with all things zoology, and he illustrates, again and again, the sweet bond that humans and animals can have. Many of his relationships with animals mimic his relationship with his family, at once comforting and confusing.
Another theme is the family. Each person in the household has strange obsessions, but at no point do we feel that this is a bad thing. Rather, on the island, each person is allowed to be him or her self without reproach. Even Mrs. Durrell learns to relax a little bit as her children roam the house, living as they please. They each find a path that allows them to express their interests more freely than what they had in England
The book takes place over the course of five years, and although the family then returned to England, it was a formative time in Gerald Durrell’s life. It allowed him to explore, learn, and create relationships with freedom and childlike wonder.