13 June 2022

Book Review: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir, by Chris Packham


Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

I read TV naturalist Chris Packham's childhood memoir after seeing his documentary 'The Walk That Made Me', where he spoke of his childhood and living with undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome. I knew Fingers in the Sparkle Jar had been a Sunday Times best-seller, but was surprised by the book in a number of ways.

His writing style challenges the conventions of memoir writing, with sudden switching of point of view, a non-linear timeline, and the occasional 'stream of consciousness' narrative.The prose veers from lyrical, almost literary, to confusing passages, yet the result is convincing and entertaining on several levels. Here is an example extract:

A door barked, a dog slammed, a tired butterfly sagged over some wilted daisies, the yellow beak of a shiny bird dribbled notes from the eaves and a sun hat with a pram sparkling wheels and clicking heels crossed the road. Everything was burned and bleached, the sunshine was exhausting....

The biggest surprise was the honesty with which a champion of nature preservation admits to collecting rare birds eggs, snaring foxes, and taking a young falcon from the nest as a pet. There are also harrowing accounts of the bullying Chris suffered at school - without understanding the reason. At one point he asks his therapist,  'How could anyone be happy as a child?' These italicised passages reveal the troubled, even suicidal legacy of a childhood living with undiagnosed illness.

There are glimpses of his relationship with his parents throughout, but only at the end do we learn of his father's patience, understanding and support.  This has been voted the nation's favourite nature book, and I was inspired by Chris Packham's success against the odds.

Tony Riches

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