New Read: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

I have to admit to having had a soft spot for naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, ever since watching the popular children’s wildlife series The Really Wild Show (1986-1995) as a child. More recently I have enjoyed seeing him present the BBC’s annual nature shows Springwatch and Autumnwatch. So as soon as I found out he had written a memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, I had to read it! Plus how good is that title?!

In this memoir, we discover that young Chris was an introverted boy, who was only truly happy when out having feral adventures in fields, rivers, ponds and woods, or hidden in his bedroom; bursting with fox skulls, birds’ eggs and sweaty jam jars of live creatures. But when Chris stole a young kestrel from its nest, he embarked on a friendship that taught him what it meant to love, and which would have a profound affect on him. In this rich, emotional and exposing memoir, Chris brings vividly to life his childhood in suburban 1970s England, with his ever pervading search for freedom, meaning and acceptance in a world that didn’t understand him.

From his TV persona, I would never have guessed the difficulties Chris has had to face in his life. Although no specific condition is mentioned in this memoir, as an adult, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which would account for the obsessive behaviour that others found so hard to understand. Chris candidly shares moments of hurt, pain, embarrassment and confusion he experienced due to this misunderstanding, balanced with the love, joy, surprise and pleasure he found in the natural world. This made for an emotional rollercoaster ride of a read for me, which I had to take my time over but it was well worth it.

Recently, I read a description that said this memoir will be unlike any you’ve ever read, with which I have to wholeheartedly agree! Chris cleverly subverts our expectations of the memoir genre by writing several events involving himself in the third person, for example through the eyes of his teacher and neighbours. Also, we flick around in time, with the Summer with his kestrel playing a central role, and each sub-book ends with a discussion looking back on his childhood with his therapist; shortly after he almost committed suicide. Not only did this make for a refreshing change in style, I think it also helped to convey Chris’ confusion and frustrations, as well as giving us a view of him from others’ perspective.

Overall, I thought Fingers in the Sparkle Jar was a beautifully wrought, powerful and candid recount of a difficult childhood for Chris Packham. A side to this successful, much loved naturalist and TV personality I never knew about before. Great read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Are you a fan of Chris Packham?

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12 thoughts on “New Read: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

  1. I don’t tend to read memoirs but this sounds very interesting and its nice to read a glowing review for it – i like that some of the stories are recounted in a different fashion than the norm.
    Lynn 😀

  2. A while ago a very good version of this book was on BBC Radio 4, wryly read by Chris Packham himself. I’ve yet to read the book (& intend to do so), but felt the ‘story’ really came across in the authors own voice. I recognised many of his experiences, as I’ve had personal experience of children whose interests & activities simply do not fit with those around them & the difficulties that arise within the constraints of childhood.

    1. Hello, thank you for stopping by and commenting 🙂 I didn’t realise this had been on BBC Radio 4 – I can imagine it was even more affective with Chris reading it out. I also felt a personal connection reading this as I work with children with learning and behavioural difficulties.

  3. I must pick this one up. I was lucky enough to meet him last year at the Photography Show in Birmingham after one of his talks and he kindly signed one of his books for me. He’s lovely. 🙂

    1. Nikki, how lovely that he signed your book for you – he does come across as a nice man on the telly. My only claim to fame was being in the same café as him once! I hope you are able to pick this up soon 🙂

  4. How great that someone with Asperger’s has grown up to be doing a job he obviously loves and doing it well! I used to work with young teens with Asperger’s (not directly – I actually worked with boys with behavioural difficulties, but several of them had those difficulties because of Asperger’s) and we were always encouraging them that it seems to be a condition that lessens for many as they mature. From your review, though, it sounds as if he may still be struggling – hopefully the therapy is working for him.

    1. FF, I also work with children with learning and behavioural difficulties. Fortunately nowadays we tend to pick up on these conditions when children are still quite young, so therapy and coping mechanisms can be put in place. Sadly in the 70s this was not the case and Chris wasn’t diagnosed till he was an adult, that is perhaps why he has found it so much harder.

  5. I am a big fan of Chris Packham and I loved this book. I very much enjoyed how the structure was rather different to most memoirs. I found it very touching.

  6. It seems that, despite his difficulties in early life, he was able to overcome all those obstacles and become successful. From your review it appears that this memoir captures very well his tribulations and triumphs.

    1. Carmen, whether he has overcome his difficulties completely I don’t know, but he certainly seems to be able to manage them and has turned his childhood love into his actual job 🙂

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