George: A Magpie Memoir, by Frieda Hughes

“From poet and painter Frieda Hughes, a memoir of love, obsession, and feathers. He was a hectic, unprincipled bird, but it was impossible not to love him. When Hughes moved to the depths of the Welsh countryside, she was expecting to take on a few projects: planting a garden, painting, writing her poetry column for The Times (London), and possibly breathing new life into her ailing marriage. But instead, she found herself rescuing a baby magpie, the sole survivor of a nest destroyed in a storm—and embarking on an obsession that would change the course of her life. As the magpie, George, grows from a shrieking scrap of feathers and bones into an intelligent, unruly companion, Frieda finds herself captivated—and apprehensive of what will happen when the time comes to finally set him free. With humor and heart, Frieda invites us along on her unlikely journey toward joy and connection in the wake of sadness and loss; a journey that began with saving a tiny wild creature and ended with her being saved in return.”

With this we’re introduced not only to storyteller but protagonist too, or more accurately, co-protagonists. I admit I was excited to read this book given the author’s literary pedigree: Frieda Hughes’s parents were Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, the latter UK Poet Laureate for two and a half decades, the former a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, posthumously. Plath committed suicide when Freida was a toddler, our author being raised by her father. A life, as Frieda puts it, of perpetual moving, the result, no sense of a real home. Undoubtedly this emotional albatross drove Frieda to create an anchor-like residence as an adult, a house with a garden and land. Along with an abundance of pets, most of them rescued, in her way providing new nests to wild orphans, creatures pulled from the chaos of nature, finding a place of solace, stability, love.

I also admit I anticipated what I thought this book would entail, hoping it might be similar to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, poetic nature-writing with ornithology anthropomorphising to autobiography. When wild animals assume traits of familiars, whether actual or ardently imagined by the narrator, we’re never entirely certain. And with sufficiently strong writing, it no longer matters. Leaving us to enjoy the flight, quite literally.

But where authors like Macdonald often hide behind feathers of nonfiction avian characters, something I consider safe-distancing to curb vulnerability or introspection, Frieda Hughes does the opposite. Leading instead with raw sentiment, emotion, hurt and loss. At times I’d prefer broader relatability and less sharing of self. For example, how might this affect the rest of us? Rather than utilizing published pages in lieu of a therapist’s sofa. As a reader I’d rather not finance one’s recovery. Maybe the writer in me is envious I haven’t monetized my own healing. Not much, anyway.

Of course sharing one’s story requires courage, along with a belief that what you share is of interest to others. A slice of ego is essential. And therein lies the crux, not unlike aerodynamics. The balance of thrust and lift to counteract gravity, drag. Too much of one, disaster is imminent. Get it right, the sky is all yours.

The start of this book felt to me like a turbulent takeoff, a wing-rattling race down a runway forcing us into the air. Yet once we pushed through low-lying nimbus, leaden cloud that can cling to cathartic narrative, the passage becomes suitably smooth. The tightly-written storytelling of a career wordsmith, irrespective of lineage. That’s what Freida Hughes presents in George, a blend of prose, poetry, and visual art. Maybe the magpie is a familiar after all. One for all of us. Monochrome plumage akin to ink on the page, flashes of grey in-between as we find our own flightpath, an unending balance of course correction, navigation, and trust in natural laws we can’t necessarily see.

Born in London in 1960, Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, is a painter and poet. She has written several children’s books, eight collections of poetry, articles for magazines and newspapers, and was The Times (London) poetry columnist. As a painter, Frieda regularly exhibits in London and has a permanent exhibition at her private gallery in Wales, where she resides with fourteen owls, two rescue huskies, an ancient Maltese terrier, five chinchillas, a ferret called Socks, a royal python, and her motorbikes.

  • Title: George, A Magpie Memoir
  • Author: Frieda Hughes
  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press, Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN: 978-1-6680-1650-3 (ARC paperback)
  • Pages: 264
  • Price: $37 CAD (hardcover)

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Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of A Season on Vancouver Island, theGone Viking travelogues, andA Perfect Day for a Walk: The History, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on Foot(Arsenal Pulp Press, Fall 2024). Recipient of a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions, Bill’s a frequent presenter and contributor to magazines, universities, podcasts, TV and radio. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.