The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag, Book Review

The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag is the fascinating story of the real people and events that inspired the much-loved fiction and TV series. Read my full review.

The Durrells of Corfu Synopsis

The recent TV award winning adaption The Durrells left its 7 million fans with questions: What happened to the family – and what took them to Corfu in the first place? This book has the answers.

The Durrell family are immortalised in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals and its ITV adaptation, The Durrells. But what of the real life Durrells? Why did they go to Corfu in the first place – and what happened to them after they left?

The real story of the Durrells is as surprising and fascinating as anything in Gerry’s books, and Michael Haag, with his first hand knowledge of the family, is the ideal narrator, drawing on diaries, letters and unpublished autobiographical fragments. 

The Durrells of Corfu describes the family’s upbringing in India and the crisis that brought them to England and then Greece. It recalls the genuine characters they encountered on Corfu – Theodore the biologist, the taxi driver Spiro Halikiopoulos and the prisoner Kosti – as well as the visit of American writer Henry Miller. And Haag has unearthed the story of how the Durrells left Corfu, including Margo’s and Larry’s last-minute escapes before the War. An extended epilogue looks at the emergence of Larry as a world famous novelist, and Gerry as a naturalist and champion of endangered species, as well as the lives of the rest of the family, their friends and other animals. 

The book is illustrated with family photos from the Gerald Durrell Archive, many of them reproduced here for the first time.

(Profile Books, 2017)

Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir, Drama, Historical

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Book Review

Firstly, if you have not watched the entire four seasons of the wonderful ITV adaptation of naturalist Gerald Durrell’s book My Family and Other Animals, then you must do so first. Keely Hawes, in the role of feisty but scattered matriarch Louisa, was the initial drawcard for me. But I quickly fell in love with her entire zany brood and the many colourful and eclectic characters they draw into their orbit. This heart-warming historical family TV drama is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, and the final episodes in particular, are deeply moving. 

The Durrells TV Series set in Corfu Greece, ITV
The Durrells TV series

Despite the TV adaptation’s fittingly poignant conclusion, I was still suffering a severe case of Durrells withdrawal when Michael Haag’s The Durrells of Corfu popped up in my library recommendations list. Yes please… just what I needed.

I found Haag’s admiring yet balanced recounting of the real Louisa Durrell’s marriage in India and the experiences there that shaped her and her children absolutely fascinating. So too, learning what really motivated their move from England to Corfu much later, along with the various disparities between fact and both Gerald and Lawrence Durrell’s published fiction.

But what really elevates this particular non-fiction narrative to evocative and atmospheric is just how frequently Haag allows the family members (two of whom were authors) and those who knew them well (the literati of the time) to simply speak for themselves. He does this with timely and perceptive inline insertion of quotes from unpublished journals, letters and memoirs. 

‘At the heart of it all,’ said Alan (Thomas), was Louisa Durrell: ‘it was her warm-hearted character, her amused but loving tolerance that held them together’. Many years later Gerry looked back on the family. ‘It is curious – and something you don’t realise at the time – but my mother allowed us to be. She worried over us, she advised us (when we asked) and the advice always ended with “but anyway, dear, you must do what you think best”. It was, I suppose, a form of indoctrination, a form of guidance. She opened new doors on problems that allowed new exploration of ways in which you might – or might not – deal with them. Simple things now ingrained in me without a recollection of how they got there. I was never lectured, never scolded.’

Haag’s depth of connection with the Durrell family offered more than access to their diaries and the many wonderful family photos included in The Durrells of Corfu. It also gave him great insight as to what motivated them as individuals, and at times drove them apart. For example, he is quite clear-eyed about how their bohemian lifestyles are likely to have been perceived as roguish or disrespectful to many on Corfu, and how the male Durrells’ obsessive focus on their passions left more than one female feeling under-appreciated.

Readers can also look forward to learning the intriguing backstories and later lives of Corfu residents that inspired other much-loved characters in the TV series, e.g Theo Stephanides.

Michael Haag’s The Durrells of Corfu is an absorbing read, celebrating lives lived large and with passion and their lasting legacies.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5

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More The Durrells of Corfu Reviews

“Given their talent for mythmaking, The Durrells of Corfu is probably as fine an introduction to the real lives of this remarkable family as could be written. – Sydney Morning Herald

“Haag vividly evokes the time and the place… (he) has written a love letter to an extraordinary family. As families and other animals go, the Durrells are a breed of their own.” – Daily Express

“This real life story of the Durrell family is fascinating – Haag brilliantly traces their footsteps in pre-war Corfu, England and India.” – Simon Nye, Writer, ITV’s The Durrells

About the Author, Michael Haag

Michael Haag has written widely on the Egyptian, Classical and Medieval worlds. He is the author of a dozen books, notably Alexandria: City of Memory, a definitive study of Cavafy, Forster and Lawrence Durrell in the city, and of The Templars: History and Myth.

This review counts toward my participation in the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge.