Early in 2009 it became obvious that my sister Penelope’s illness was getting worse, and that she was soon going to need expensive full-time care. Although we had grown up together, we had different fathers; hers was Lawrence Durrell, famous for The Alexandria Quartet, the island books and some amazing poetry. Now we needed to find ways to increase the royalties from his work, especially important as the centenary of his birth is 2012 and a reappraisal was long overdue.
A couple of people suggested that our mother Nancy, his first wife, was the missing piece in the story of his life and work; they asked if I had ever considered writing about her. I hadn’t. I have always thought of myself as a novelist – as Joanna Hines I’ve written historical and crime fiction – and though I write reviews and occasional articles, fiction has always been my trade.
But the idea took hold. Before she died in 1983, realising she was going to be a walk-on character in the Durrell pageant, and that she was, in her opinion, bound to be misrepresented, she began writing a memoir. With her usual thoroughness she decided she needed to describe her family background and early years so as to give a clear picture of the 20 year old art student LD met in 1932 (they were both born in 1912, three months apart). Her parents were complex and difficult people – more complex, as I discovered when writing about them, than she ever realised: uncovering her mother’s lies was one of the most surprising results of my research. By the time Nancy had got herself to 1932 and her meeting with Larry, she was dying of cancer and did not have the mental energy to write more. Instead my father encouraged her to talk about her Durrell years. After she died he transcribed the tapes. I have them still.
There was no shortage of material.
Besides, I had grown up with the stories of her life before 1947 when she married my father, returned to England and – eventually – settled into being an outwardly conformist bourgeois lady, but always subtly different from any of the mothers of my friends. I loved the stories of the young Gerald Durrell and his admirable refusal to go to school and his determination to fill the family home with wildlife. The stories of Henry Miller, whom she adored, and the glee with which they all sabotaged a respectable golf club magazine they got to run in Paris. I loved hearing about Corfu, the idyll of their pre-war life there, their adventures and their friends, their dramatic escape from wartime Greece, just days ahead of the German army. I knew by heart the story of my parents’ extraordinary courtship when she was about to marry someone else, the fact that I owed my existence to a faulty postal service.
So I started to explore. Because it was to be first and foremost a personal memoir I thought it was a book best written fast.
Like all books, this one has been a personal journey. Along the way I have found out things I never knew about my mother, learned family secrets that she herself never guessed, and discovered the thread that connects all the separate stories I’d grown up with. And I learned that fact is more extraordinary than fiction, that real life springs surprises you’d never get away with in a novel. And I learned that a life is as much a story as a novel is. The facts only come to life once you’ve figured out how to tell them.
In the end, this book feels like a final, posthumous gift from a remarkable woman.