“There’s no denying My Family and Other Animals captures the magical nature of childhood.” ― Moonshake Book review
While it plays well on paper, a family member shooting a pet dog even by accident is somehow less funny [and seems less realistic] when conveyed on television. The death of Achilles, Gerry’s first pet – a tortoise that fell down a well – is also sketched in comic terms.
Once again what plays well on paper: Margo’s suggestion of forcing strawberries down [Achilles’] throat (to give him, as she explained, something to live for) somehow plays less well when actually dramatized. In the context of Gerry becoming a world famous naturalist in real life, this appropriation of doomed or damaged pets for reasons of comic relief seems disingenuous rather than charmingly eccentric.
Leslie’s love for guns within the context of a budding naturalist also irks, not just because killing animals is the antithesis of conservation, but because it somehow feels embellished.
Leslie unpacked his revolvers and startled us all with an apparently endless series of explosions while he fired at an old tin can from his bedroom window.
Larry endorsed My Family as “a very wicked, very funny, and I’m afraid rather truthful book…”
I’m afraid he may have been right on the first two counts, but not the last. As much as there is an impression of not having any money, the Durrells nevertheless employ a chauffeur and a chef. Whatever the deprivations of their accommodations, they lived in a sumptuous seaside mansion. So what’s going on here?
It may seem silly, sixty years after the book was published, a book that was prescribed reading when I was in high school, this serious effort to deconstruct the narrative psychology behind The Durrells. But there is a method behind this silliness. It is to contrast the idyll that is the Corfu Trilogy with the true story of the Durrell clan.
Some may think that silly too, until we begin to fully contextualise the brokenness that gave rise to these happy tales, and then bend this process of compulsive fictionalising and reinvention back onto society and ourselves. The full extent of the contrivance is less entertaining than it is tragic.
It’s then that we can seriously ask – and seriously answer the original question.
Do fairy tales do any harm?
The point of this process is less to point fingers than to simply understand how the process works, and perhaps remind ourselves how ubiquitous a seditious psychology is, not only in popular entertainment, but in our own compulsive consumption of it.
We find not only is it all too common, it is a profoundly damaging psychology with severe, sometimes unfathomably severe consequences. I will illustrate how severe by digging into an archive of similar writers, as well as my own diary.
When the temptation arises [as it will] to become dismissive of an investigation into the impact of fairy tale commerce on the psychology of children, it may be useful to invoke a true crime analogy.
Time and again criminals appear in court, called to account for the most egregious of accusations. In the case of Oscar Pistorius, we have a celebrity alone at home with his girlfriend. Shortly after 3am on Valentine’s Day he shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp to death, four shots through a locked bathroom door.
In court, instead of an account for why he murdered his girlfriend, we get a fairy tale involving a burglar. The fairy tale is defended by his legal counsel and preposterous as it sounds, believed, ultimately, by the presiding judge. It demonstrates that we live in a world where many cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction even in a courtroom.
Before the nightmare, Oscar supposedly was living a fairy tale life, but that isn’t true either. The able-bodied narrative turned out to be a fairy tale too.
We make the mistake, just because a crime hasn’t been explicitly committed, to be dismissive of fairy tales, and to dismiss the tellers and the tales.
So, coming back to The Durrells, even if there are a few inconsistencies in a television series, it’s not as though a crime has been committed, right?
… doesn’t matter a jot…
Well actually, a great deal of harm does come from compulsive escapism. Like the compulsive eccentricity of a jogger, we might look on from the side-lines and clap, assuming that exercise, even manic exercise, is mostly harmless.
One feature that seems to define the Durrell canon is its eccentricity. Some things simply don’t add up, don’t make sense, but it’s just part of its charming eccentricity, right?
The book is simply one hell of an uplifting and beautiful read from a gifted writer.
Of course, it is much much more than that.