If there’s a better match to be made between heaven and earth than books and summer holidays, then I’m yet to find it. There’s something magical about pulling out a paperback, tipping your sunhat to shade your eyes, and relaxing into a great story.
For me, there’s one book that says ‘desert island read’ more than any other – My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell.
It’s the (mostly) true story of a chaotic family that leaves dreary London for the blue skies and sparkling ocean of Corfu, where the author discovers a range of colourful characters, some animal, some human.
Simply put, My Family and Other Animals is sunshine in paper form. It’s irrepressibly joyful, funny and eccentric and just about perfect. I can’t imagine anything more fitting to read while sitting under a hot sun than the story of Roger the Dog, fiercely loyal driver Spiro and the rest of the Durrell family. And as a child, who wouldn’t want to be turned loose every day to build boats, fire guns, rescue animals and make strange friends?
Like all the best autobiographical novels, My Family and Other Animals never lets the truth get in the way of a great story. I loved that Gerald’s older brother Lawrence Durrell once said of the book: “It is the best argument I know for keeping 13 year old boys at boarding school and not letting them hang about the house listening to conversations of their elders and betters.”
I first read the novel when I was about 10 years old, lying on the floor in front of my grandmother’s fire, after school. If I stop to think, I can still remember the smell of her leather sofa, scorched slightly from the heat of the open fire, and the taste of the shortbread biscuits my grandmother would put in front of me from time to time – my grandmother was a firm believer that a child absorbed in a book shouldn’t be disturbed except in cases of dire emergency.
But this isn’t just a book for children. One of my favourite holiday memories was taking a trip to Corfu in my 20s. We were looking to rent a villa and chanced upon The White House, where the Durrell family once stayed, and which is immortalised in My Family and Other Animals. I spent many a happy afternoon sitting on the house’s white garden wall, my feet dangling over the ocean, reading My Family and Other Animals.
What makes the memory especially perfect is the copy I was reading – and which sits on my daughter’s bookcase today – is the exact same copy I read as a child, although these days it’s looking pretty ‘well loved’ I must confess. But I think a wonky cover and faded illustrations just add to the charm of a book that’s already pretty close to perfect.