Looking for the Durrells: some summers change us for ever
HarperInspire, 8.99 sterling
reviewed by Richard Pine
Verdict: one wonders why Melanie Hewitt bothered to offer us such appalling drivel.
Spoiler: Young woman, unhappy in love, comes to Corfu due to the lure of My Family and Other Animals. Almost nothing happens, and she goes home.
Melanie Hewitt, according to her publisher, wanted to be a book illustrator, but gave that up to take a degree in English, and then decided to become a nanny, a career choice thwarted by the attraction of journalism (she became editor of the Doncaster Advertiser, no less). Apparently not content with this way of life, she then worked in PR before deciding to become an educator. Along the way she became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, although we are not told on what basis this distinction was awarded. Quite a career so far.
Melanie Hewitt has now made her literary debut, due largely to her friendship with the late Nikos Louvros (a Corfiot villa-renter and one of the dedicatees of the book) and his English wife Annabelle, inventors of the so-called Corfu Literary Festival.
One cannot escape the feeling that this novel’s raison d’etre is its title: that, if it were not for the hugely successful tv series The Durrells, this insipid account of a young woman’s pilgrimage to Corfu on the trail of the Durrells would have little or no meaning. There is an “industry” based on the Durrells – not the largely academic “Durrell industry” which surrounds Lawrence Durrell, nor indeed that associated with his zoologist brother, Gerald, but one generated entirely by Simon Nye’s superb scriptwriting for the tv series, based on the Corfu Trilogy (that is, not only My Family and Other Animals but Gerald’s other two books about his family’s time in Corfu, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods). This “industry” has already spawned work as different in quality as Michael Haag’s superficial and unoriginal The Durrells of Corfu (2017), written to order, I suspect, at the behest of the tv series producers, and David Shimwell’s superb research into Louisa (mother) Durrell’s Indian and Corfiot recipes, Dining with the Durrells (2019).
Penny, the “heroine” – if we can dignify the woman at the centre of this romance with such a sobriquet – has just buried her father and broken off her engagement. She comes to Corfu because she and her father had shared a love for Gerald’s My Family and Other Animals which appears as a leitmotiv whenever Penny is asked “Why did you come to Corfu?” – which is often. She wants to visit the Durrell haunts, saving up for some kind of climax a visit by sea to Kalami, where Lawrence and his wife Nancy had lived in the house now known as “the White House”. In between somewhat lukewarm (and very unclimactic) forays into Durrelland, Penny skirts romance with a mysterious solicitor-cum-fisherman and no, dear reader, nothing happens. No self-discovery a-la-Shirley Valentine, no saccharine Mills&Boon flirtation with s-e-c-k-s…. nothing. Oh, sorry, one chaste kiss. Possibly two chaste kisses, but the second one is too vague to amount to osculation. This is Mills&Boon on Dozol.
As frequently as Penny is asked the “Why did you…?” question, she occupies her regular table at her local taverna and consumes her regular glass of rosé, until she becomes almost as bored as the reader with the endless repetition, the constant circling around the empty hole of her sexuality.
Factually, despite what seem to have been Ms Hewitt’s own visits to Corfu, there are howlers. Penny is based in “Saint George South” – the village of Agios Giorgos on Corfu’s south-west coast, to distinguish it from a village of the same name in the north-west of the island. Penny drives north towards Corfu Town and succeeds, believe it or not, in passing the port of Corfu, and Garitsa bay, on her left, which she could only do if she were heading south. Penny is clearly off-piste, but the reader who knows the island’s geography is, at this stage, thoroughly piste-off.
The descriptions of the “Durrell places” she visits read like an hysterical guidebook – the Greek Tourist Organisation must be thrilled not merely that Ms Hewitt trembles with emotion at the landscape between the mountains and the sea, but faithfully intones almost exactly the GNO’s appalling 2014 video “Gods, Myths, Heroes” which invites you to imagine yourself greeted by Athena or Hercules on arrival at Kapodistrias Airport.
But why should facts stand in the way of a little inventive imagination – to say nothing of re-arranging the island’s geography? After all, Ms Hewitt’s mentors, the organisers of the cricket event quaintly known as the Corfu Literary Festival, have declared that “Homer chose Corfu as his place of hospitality, devoting most of his Odyssey to it.” It’s a pity the classical scholars were so blind! Lawrence Durrell of course played the Corfu-Odysseus card for what it was worth, but even he didn’t realise that Odysseus spent the entire Odyssey here and probably only went home to Ithaca when the pubs ran out of beer. “Oh well, better go home, see if the wife’s left my dinner in the microwave”. When asked to withdraw the mis-statement, the festival organisers refused. Like the GNO, they could see no harm in re-inventing mythology to suit the marketing strategy. With such nonchalance and indifference towards the facts, it’s not surprising that Ms Hewitt’s Looking for the Durrells leads us up blind alleys.
The “Corfu Literary Festival” consists of a group of British cricketers who are also writers, or maybe a group of writers who are also cricketers. The analogy holds good either way, since although Ms Hewitt’s Penny isn’t “bowled” she is certainly stumped and run out (or, rather, her author runs out of ideas to put into Penny’s brainlet). And she is, for most of the book, silly-mid-on, even when, to continue the cricket analogy, it’s all “over”.
“A yearning ache for the simple gifts of family, home, love, community, and gratitude for the ordinary overwhelmed her … The Durrells’ life on Corfu had encompassed all these things, but Penny’s life at home stretched emptily ahead of her, devoid of family and love”. Oh dear, poor Penny. That phrase “gratitude for the ordinary” is, I think, the sole heart-warming expression in the whole of this devastatingly dull book. But the second part of that quotation is so completely at odds with what the Durrells’ lives were like in the 1935-39 period as to make one wonder what value the book can possibly have as a guide to the “Corfu of the Durrells” which the title leads one to expect. The whole point of the Durrells’ lives (plural, please) on Corfu is that they were searching for the same things that have eluded Penny: they were looking for love and a sense of community – Margo and Leslie as difficult teenagers, Larry and Nancy as artists, Louisa as a single impoverished mother and Gerald, aged ten, trying to find his place in the world of family, other humans, animals and flora. All of which was not only blasted by the onset of the war, which scattered them, but also challenged every day in Corfu by their blind expectations and the realities of trying to live among the Corfiots in town and country. Ms Hewitt just doesn’t understand this. And why should she? She has been fed a picture-postcard image of an idyllic life in idyllic circumstances and why should reality interfere with that? This, after all, is fiction.
Well, to be fair to Ms Hewitt, she does try a bit of realism: “How could I have imagined somewhere so perfect?” Penny pathetically asks, to which the mystery-man responds: “No place is perfect, because none of us are. We carry our hopes, dreams, hurt, and failings with us wherever we go.” Good so far. But then, the GNO waves its wand and: “But when life brings you heartache, as well as good things … Corfu does its best to either soothe you or celebrate with you.” Aw, spit.
If this saccharine drivel had been titled “A Corfu Romance” or “Klimax in Kerkyra” or “Ionian Passion” it probably wouldn’t have been published. Like Penny herself, it never reaches a climax or even probes the deeper parts of its subject. We want a tale of Mediterranean self-discovery to be gripping, but this novel has all the gripping power of a dead crab. What seems to be blatant profiteering on the back of the “Durrells” tv series means that gullible readers will fall for Looking for the Durrells in the belief that it really depicts the island, and is a faithful representation of the Durrells’ (apparently monolithic) lives in an age long dead, ignoring the ever-increasing eyesore of resortification, fearless breaking of the planning laws, commercialisation of every aspect of tourism, which are sucking what is left of the life-blood out of Corfu.
In issue 4 of C.20 I described Victoria Hislop’s writing as “dull”. Compared to Ms Hewitt, Ms Hislop is sparkling, fascinating, irridescent. But no, Ms Hislop is dull – so where does that leave Ms Hewitt, making a virtue of blandness, platitudes and repetition? Drowning in the Dozol, perhaps.