As a fan of Sylvia Plath, a renowned writer who died by suicide, and curious about her reportedly controversial relationship with her husband, Ted Hughes, I read their daughter’s recent memoir curious as to what it may reveal about their lives.
By way of background, Sylvia’s novel The Bell Jar was a semi-autobiographical account of her struggle with the darkness of depression. Additionally, many of her poems expressed her dissatisfaction with her marriage. Some of her private letters specifically referenced an affair that Ted had.
Further complicating this dynamic, when Sylvia died, although they were separated, Ted had continuing editorial control over her material. Much of her readership felt he was selective in what went to press to preserve his reputation.
Aptly titled George: A Magpie Memoir Frieda’s book combines nature writing and reflections on family relationships. In effect, Frieda’s act of rescuing the magpie is the crucible for insight into herself and her family.
Frieda shares family touchstones such as the many moves her father undertook to reinvent himself. This rings familiar for a man in the public eye who wished to change his image. She connects her discombobulated childhood to her interest in rooting herself in a country home.
In general, Frieda interweaves personal truths the same way she approaches her home as a fixer upper: a project she can tend to in her own time. Leisurely renovations pair nicely with the tantalizing revelations about her iconic parents. Her memoir reflects the slow journey we all take to come to terms with our family history and make it our own.
The beating heart of the memoir is when Frieda rescues a magpie chick. Her unlikely connection with the needy fledgling is characterized by funny and poignant interactions among the bird, herself, the dogs, the neighbors as well as the house and garden. Further, George’s growth from a ‘scrap of feathers’ to a ‘charming and affectionate companion’ mirrors Frieda’s remarkable transformation from nascent, awkward bird mother to full maturity as an avian rescuer.
Transformation is also present in her mother’s work. Both mother and daughter are talented at drawing the reader in. Where Sylvia is explicit with a hard-hitting staccato poetic style, Frieda is lyrical with heart wrenching and offbeat descriptions. Their unique writing styles animate the length and breadth of their personal struggles. Where Sylvia plunges the reader into her struggle with depression, Frieda enlightens the reader with her hard won strategies for managing chronic fatigue. Both articulate their experiences in a voice that has grit and wings.
As far as parallels to the relationship between her mother and father, a reader can see the growing distance between Frieda and “The Ex” (which is how she refers to her then-husband throughout the memoir) and Sylvia and Ted’s estrangement. The crux of the mounting tensions stem from Frieda’s interest in ‘nesting’ while nurturing a wild bird and his interest in living abroad and being free of the magpie.
Love and loss is likewise seen in the story arc. George grows into his ability to fly over the summer while Frieda worries he may get hurt and builds an aviary to protect him. Sadly, the aviary’s completion coincides with George’s disappearance. As Frieda puts it, a “bird-shaped hole” appears in her heart. She resolves to foster birds.
Coming full circle, as Kirkus review notes, this moving portrayal of “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.” Frieda is a gifted writer who shares her love of nature in this striking story about a distinctive little bird with a knack for finding shiny things.