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George: A Magpie Memoir by Frieda Hughes — ‘an inexplicable joy’

Direct and painfully honest, this book shows what a match Hughes is for fearless, funny George

Sylvia Plath with Frieda and Nicholas Hughes in 1962.
George: A Magpie Memoir
George: A Magpie Memoir
Author: Frieda Hughes
ISBN-13: 978-1800814790
Publisher: Profile Books
Guideline Price: £16.99

George, a baby magpie tossed out of its nest during a storm, was almost not rescued by Frieda Hughes, “next to the blade of my spade … camouflaged by the leaves … It squatted belligerently, peering up at me with magpie fury … I might have cut it in two …” George survived thanks to Hughes’s absolute focus on his needs and his own fierce fight for life. He became “an inexplicable joy” for Hughes and the vibrant heart of this irresistible memoir.

From the hilarious and painfully precise descriptions of feeding George — “I developed the knack of pushing the end of the worm down George’s throat with the tip of my finger … quickly shoving the rest of it into his jaw, before the other end of the worm got a curling grip on the side of his beak and hauled itself out” — to the eidetic image of George in flight - “his body turned perhaps twice as he barrelled towards my face … his round body with his manic little head aiming straight for me. For a moment my eyes were so focused on his tiny face … I could swear he was grinning” - Hughes’s own life takes up less space and it is always in service to George’s story.

George’s inevitable departure, always the horizon, is heart-wrenching when it happens

Direct and painfully honest, it shows what a match Hughes is for fearless, funny George. Her life was tough from the beginning: “following the suicide of my mother, Sylvia Plath, on 11 February 1963, my father, Ted Hughes, found it difficult to settle. Possessions would have been an encumbrance … It wasn’t that I wanted to have things simply for the sake of it … I longed to use the responsibility for them … as weights with which to anchor myself … at … thirteen, I had, by my count, been to twelve schools.”

George’s inevitable departure, always on the horizon, is heart-wrenching when it happens. Missing George’s corvid wit and intelligence, Hughes adopts a Bengal owl and severe health problems begin to disappear as her difficult relationship ends. “I counted my blessings … unaware of what lay ahead, how difficult the divorce would be … Nor could I guess how many more owls would arrive to … take over my life … a source of joy and equilibrium … all because of a little magpie called George.”

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic