"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.
In 2004, Frieda Hughes moved with her then-husband, artist Laszlo Lukacs, from London to Wales. (In the book she calls him "The Ex.")
The Ex was from Australia, and he told Frieda he wanted to move back there when he was older, a desire she ignored. Older, she figured, meant 90 or 95, not 65 or 70. But guess what — it did mean 65 or 70, and fissures in the relationship begin to show.
Their Wales house was a crumbling mess, in need of replumbing, rewiring, replastering. Despite this, living there was Hughes' "heart's desire." She began planning elaborate gardens. She was definitely not moving to Australia. "I wanted to stop moving," she writes. "I wanted roots."
Into this dubious paradise falls George, a magpie chick that makes its presence known by a "deafening shriek [that] tore right through my eardrum." It was on the ground beneath the remains of a nest that had been destroyed in the previous night's storm. The little bird peered up at her with "magpie fury."
She brought it into her kitchen, and that was pretty much it for worrying about The Ex or the marriage; she now had more immediate concerns. Digging for worms, for one thing. "Magpie food became a preoccupation," she writes.
Over the next few months, George lived in their kitchen — shrieking to be fed, molting, teasing the dogs, and, it must be said (and Hughes does, repeatedly), pooping all over everything.
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.
He is much more entertaining than the poor Ex, a shadowy figure, clearly unhappy, usually sequestered upstairs or heading off to London. "It seemed to me that we were seeing less and less of each other despite living in the same house." As George grows — and grows more difficult — The Ex urges Hughes to set the bird free.
She knows he's right — she should open the window, allow George to fly away and be its wild self.
Instead, she begins building an aviary.
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.
Yes, this book is about how Hughes rescued George. But in many ways, it's about how George rescued Hughes.
There was no thought of Hughes moving to Australia as long as George needed her, which was one of The Ex's objections to the bird. "He didn't want to be tied down," she writes. "But I did. ... I was growing those roots that I'd hankered after all my life."
Laurie Hertzel is the former senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. email@example.com
George: A Magpie Memoir
By: Frieda Hughes.
Publisher: Avid Reader Press, 272 pages, $28.