Image: Ebury Press / Goodreads

After reading Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham, I consider it to be an important book that everyone should read. It’s a stark and uncompromising memoir, laying bare the nitty-gritty details of the various raw moments throughout Packham’s life, and its nature as a book written in both the first and third-person (the viewpoint changes between the different chapters) really brings home both the intimacy and the detachment of Packham from the events he narrates.

Most will know Chris Packham as the slightly eccentric presenter of numerous wildlife documentaries – those which appear yearly on our television screens as part of the BBC’s Springwatch. Going into this memoir, I had some awareness that it wasn’t going to be a sparkly, oh-so-happy retelling of happy memories from the recent past, but I hadn’t quite realised just how bare Packham’s emotions were going to be laid in it.

Most of the memoir focuses on Packham’s childhood, navigating the events which unfolded in his life between the ages of seven and sixteen, but it also goes on to discuss the various other key defining moments which occur within his life. He never asks for forgiveness or even understanding throughout these unpleasant moments – he never expects us to feel happy or excited when we read of his child self eating tadpoles and newts, snaring foxes and stealing bird eggs. Events are simply presented as fact, as things that shaped the boy into a naturalist that loves all things – and that, I think, is part of what makes this memoir so powerful and emotional.

chris packham
Image: Chris Packham /

As mentioned above, sometimes it is Packham himself who narrates the events unfolding in the memoir, speaking as himself and from his own experiences; and sometimes Packham narrates the events in the third-person, watching his various endeavours unfold before him from a distant standpoint. Sometimes, it’s not Packham narrating at all; instead, it is another character watching Packham as a boy, or as an adult, growing up and struggling with a variety of tough life moments. It is a strange format for a memoir that some readers may find unnatural to read, but to me, the format seems to suit the tone of the book and makes it all the more engaging.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is split into eight distinct chapters, which are then further divided into key dated sections, and each focuses on a different memory. Each chapter ends with a few pages looking at the adult Packham, sometimes painfully reminiscing on the events of his childhood, or reflecting on his feelings in the closer past that brought him to the chair of the therapist following his 2003 suicide attempt. The prose is lyrical and detailed, painting nature especially beautifully in various quotations. Turn to any page and the world bursts to life in vivid colours; to point out just one quotation, imagine that ‘two swans whirred and wobbled overhead and then crashed, spraying quick wakes of glassy spume…’.

Much of the memoir is focused on Packham’s close relationship with his male kestrel, which at one point, after many years of close care, is lost in a storm. At one point we see the world from the view of the bird, the other side of an event, the loss of Packham’s bird to the boy. Whereas the boy is heartbroken, the bird obviously experiences the event in different terms, this section from the bird’s view devoid of the emotion seen in neighbouring chapters, but no less beautifully written; ‘… as the dying light rubbed fire onto the last of the big tops high up in thinner air, he closed his body and fell towards the earth, cleaving the darkening strata, the guttering sun flaring through the last lightning-lit seams of cloud…’.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar was voted the UK’s favourite nature book (see above interview), and obviously these sections such as the one I have described above illustrate perfectly why this book is so adored. But there are also sections where Packham interacts with other people; his parents, at school, outside of school. Most of these are painful to read; it quickly becomes clear why Packham is so enamoured with nature, and feels estranged from other people in his ordinary day-to-day life. There are moments from his young childhood where interacting with others is obviously difficult, which then grow into even more difficult troubles in trying to fit in at secondary school, and eventually resigning himself to the knowledge that he just can’t – and probably never will.

Although it is never explicitly stated, his affinity with wildlife had obviously developed in part due to this loneliness and his estrangement from the people around him, and his development of relationships with animals, rather than people, was a fitting substitute for him. It’s a tricky subject matter, but is expressed beautifully, and I am glad to have read Packham’s memoir and grown to understand him just that little bit better as a naturalist.

I would say the format of Fingers in the Sparkle Jar makes it easy reading, but the content within and the emotional journey it takes the reader on defies anything that could be said to be ‘easy’ about it. Although beautifully written, you might find yourself requiring time away from this book to get your emotions back in order – so I would recommend always having some tissues nearby while reading. If you’d like to read more about Chris Packham and his life, I would also recommend that you head over to his official biography page on his official website.

Verdict: 8/10

An unusual memoir in format and frankness, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar stands out from other nature books through its haunting prose and the wide breadth of subject matter. If you enjoy lyrical prose, this one’s definitely worth picking up – though having tissues nearby is definitely a must.

If you’d like to read a copy of Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, you can view it on Goodreads here, you can buy it on Amazon here, or you can find it in your local bookstore. Be sure to follow us here at PixelTome over on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep up-to-date with our latest book reviews, news posts, features and more.