In her new memoir, Frieda Hughes rarely mentions her famous parents, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. But their absence — in life and art — underscores this poignant and often funny story about, of all things, her relationship with a magpie ... Part of the charm of this book is that the author doesn’t dwell on her pain or her past or the reasons why. On a spectrum of people-animal memoirs, the book falls closer to Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk than John Grogan’s Marley and Me. Still, it is not especially cerebral or didactic, and that is not meant as a criticism. It’s a passionate book about unconditional love and commitment. It’s also fast-paced and suspenseful, full of amusing anecdotes, poems and Hughes’s sweet drawings of George.
Ms. Hughes is a canny stylist: There’s another memoir lurking behind this one, caught in asides. The book is both a love letter to the magpie who changed her trajectory and a nod to the voyeurism of her readers, 'the peanut-crunching crowd,' to quote a Plath poem. Ms. Hughes doles out her biography in tidbits, feeding us in much the same manner as she feeds George. She’s in command, and the familiar setting and characters—Court Green, Richard Murphy, Aunt Olwyn Hughes, the villainous 'my father'—shock when they unexpectedly slip into the narrative ... She tells her story in poised yet anecdotal language; her charm reels us in. Memoir as a form of self-revelation comes beautifully to her. I suspect her audience will clamor for another soon.
George is the weird but entertaining story of a woman and a bird. It is also a deeper story about that woman's reluctance to face the end of her marriage and her desire to hang onto some things (bird, husband) that need to be set free ... Hughes imbues George with a delightful personality. The words she uses to describe his behavior are those of human characteristics: He's audacious, he's funny, he plays tricks. He's aggressive, snippy and investigative, watchful and resourceful. He dances and skips and is a natural clown ... Hughes, the daughter of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, is a visual artist and poet. Her pencil illustrations of George are funny and affectionate, her prose is rich with imagery. Metaphors abound. It's impossible not to be smitten by the magpie (even if you get tired of scene after scene of bird poop and zany antics). It's also impossible not to feel for Hughes, who never wanted children but who is clearly filled with love and empathy and the need to care for something, even if only a bird.
...[an] irresistible memoir ... From the hilarious and painfully precise descriptions of feeding George...to the eidetic image of George in flight...Hughes’s own life takes up less space and it is always in service to George’s story ... Direct and painfully honest, it shows what a match Hughes is for fearless, funny George ... George’s inevitable departure, always on the horizon, is heart-wrenching when it happens.
There is a lovely, lively memoir here, but it has been left trapped inside a confused – and apparently unedited – draft of a book. Hughes is capable of some wonderful reminiscences...But to get to such moments the reader must slog through pages of aimless asides ... Many of the book’s failings are the result of a dereliction of duty by the publisher. On almost every page editorial opportunities are missed. The past tense weighs down Hughes’s colloquial tone; the book is crying out for an alert present-tense narrator. Tautologies and garbled metaphors detract from otherwise lucid reflections and lost, wandering sentences derail whole paragraphs ... Such oversights are understandable in an unpublished diary, but woeful in a hardback marketed as a coherent 'memoir of love, obsession and feathers.' Its author – who writes movingly on a number of occasions about her dyslexia – deserved better.
On one level, it is an expert bit of nature writing, akin to a David Attenborough documentary. But on another level, it is a psychologically profound investigation of how George, her other animals, and the extensive gardens she cultivates on an acre of land in the Welsh countryside give her the 'stability and sense of permanence' that she lacked as a child ... George is a wild animal so inevitably, he must depart. At first, Hughes is devastated. Then she turns her seemingly inexhaustible energy to rescuing other wildlife in distress, doing further restoration work on her part Georgian/part-Victorian hall, developing 'the garden of my wildest dreams,' constructing an aviary, and writing and illustrating this captivating book.
In lyrical prose full of introspection and humor, Hughes describes George being washed by her dogs, his learning to fly, and his curiosity about everything. Caring for George eventually sent the author in new directions, culminating with her adoption of two owls. This is a perfect match for Featherhood (2021), by Charlie Gilmour, the son of a poet who also rescued a magpie. Enlivened with Hughes’ drawings, this portrait of a bird mirrors how each of us maneuvers through our own existence.
Illustrated throughout with pen-and-ink drawings, this charming memoir about the author’s accidental adventures in avian rescue offers tantalizing insights into her struggle to fly free of the difficult emotional legacy bequeathed by her literary-icon parents, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. A poignantly heartwarming delight.