This is a story of two men who could talk to birds—but were completely incapable of talking to each other.
A father who fled from his family in the dead of night, and the jackdaw he raised like a child.
A son obsessed with his absence—and the young magpie that fell into his path and refused to fly away.
This is a story about the crow family and human family; about repetition across generations and birds that run in the blood; about a terror of repeating the sins of the father and a desire to build a nest of one’s own.
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Read an Excerpt
Yana sets the cardboard box, with its precious contents, very gently down on our bedroom floor. Her sister found it this morning, she explains, and picked it up and brought it to their workshop. In between hammering and drilling they’ve been feeding it live grubs from the angling supplier. The grubs bite, Yana continues matter-of-factly, so you have to crush their heads a little with pliers or a fingernail before sending them down the bird’s hatch. She raises the flaps of the box.
A black-and-white ball of fluff the size of a child’s fist is curled up in a corner. It looks dead. It smells dead. I click my tongue at the creature and one of its eyelids flutters open. Its eye is mineral blue.
I try to call to mind everything I know about magpies. At first, all I can come up with is the nursery rhyme “One for sorrow” and an image of my mum religiously saluting any she encountered on the farm I grew up on, to ward off the bad luck they’re supposed to bring. Better safe than sorry, I think, touching my hand to the side of my head as I peer down into the box. Yana says they’re clever birds—very clever, as all members of the crow family are—although I seem to recall that they’re widely disliked for reasons I’ve never quite understood. Something about them eating baby songbirds and consorting with the devil. And they’re said to have a pirate’s eye for stolen treasure—a lost wedding ring should be looked for in the nearest magpie nest. Other than saluting it, I have no idea what you’re meant to do with one. I’ve cared for injured wildlife before in a vague sort of way, or at least I tried to as a kid: creatures the cat dragged in, broken squirrels, birds that had jerked their brains to jelly against windowpanes. No matter what you do, it seems like they always end up in the same place: a shoebox at the bottom of a shallow grave. Even healthy animals haven’t had the best of luck in my hands. I think guiltily of the beautiful white doves we had years ago, which my grandmother, my mother, and I dyed pastel pink and released on the farm—only for them to be gobbled up by the fox like so much cotton candy. If I’d been the one to come across this bird, I suspect I might have been tempted to let it take its chances down in the gutter. I’m not sure what we can do for it, except perhaps prolong its suffering.
I look from the bird to Yana. She’s dressed, as usual for a workday, in a dark blue, paint-spattered coverall and heavy boots. Her light brown hair is held tightly in place with pins in a precise and severe style that adds a few grades of sharpness to her high and prominent cheekbones. She’s already busy with the pliers. I watch as she goes snapping after a writhing yellow grub with her metallic beak and clamps down on its head. Pale goo oozes from both ends of the unfortunate grub as she waves it enticingly above the baby magpie. This is typical behavior. Yana is incapable of encountering a broken object without wanting to pick it up and make it better. I suppose she’s something of a magpie herself: not a thief, exactly, but certainly a hoarder of found treasure. She always has a screwdriver at hand and rarely seems to think twice about dragging abandoned light fixtures, or slabs of marble, or enormous sacks of rocks that she’s collected from the foreshore of the Thames back to our house. Our home is filled with things she’s made or fixed: from shelves, to mugs, to knives, to the chairs we sit on and the trousers I wear. She takes special delight in suspending things from the ceiling. In the living room, a chandelier she made from sharp glass stalactites rattles whenever large vehicles go past; above our bed a framework of bamboo and string and trailing vines has turned our room into a jungle. She attributes her DIY attitude to having grown up as one of six siblings in a busy immigrant family. Her parents fled to Sweden from Soviet Ukraine with their children and whatever else they could carry, leaving the USSR to collapse behind them. It was a chaotic environment and having the ability to make your own clothes as well as your own fun came at a premium.
I first met her two years ago at a party in a disused carwash in Lewisham. She appeared from behind a concrete pillar with peroxide-blond hair and demonic-red eye makeup and hooked me with a glance. Later, she took me back to her place and showed me her albino snake, her orchid mantis, and her collection of homemade knives. Not long after that we moved in together and were swiftly engaged. It’s all been very sudden, so much so that I’m slightly unsure as to how I’ve arrived at this point. At times I feel a little like one of her found objects. I certainly never imagined myself settling down in my twenties. Last time I checked, I had a shaved head, bruised knuckles, and was heading for a fall. Now I seem to be getting married, making a nest. Sometimes I’m convinced I’ve dreamt all this up, and everything could vanish as easily as waking. At other times, the opposite seems true: that I’m slowly regaining consciousness after a long and tiring nightmare. I don’t know if it was Yana’s willingness to take on the defective that drew her to me—I somehow doubt it. But her strength, solidity, invulnerability were certainly some of the qualities that pulled me to her.
Now this bad-luck bird has arrived. A dream-thing regarding Yana’s dying worm suspiciously from its corner of the box. Both of its eyes are open now. Blue. I never knew that a young magpie’s eyes were blue. All the magpies I’ve seen in the past, chattering in trees, or picking apart carcasses on roadsides, must have been adults, their eyes glinting obsidian. Though this bird’s eyes are fully unshuttered, its sharp black beak remains stubbornly closed, no matter how Yana tries to tempt it. She mutters something under her breath that sounds like “stupid magpie” and sets her pliers down. Fixing this broken little crow might, I suspect, be beyond even her powers of repair.
“Isn’t there someone else who can deal with this?” I say. “Like, I don’t know, a vet?”
Yana rolls her eyes at me as if I’d just suggested hiring an electrician to come and change a lightbulb. Which is, to be fair, exactly the sort of thing I might try to do—for the lightbulb’s sake. If Yana represents order, then I am chaos. Things just seem to fall apart in my hands, and this bird is all too breakable.
Yana waves me away and picks up the pliers again. She crushes a fresh worm and makes another pass at the magpie, this time emitting odd high-pitched chirruping noises and clacking her metal beak—just like, she claims, a mother magpie would do in the wild. With a sudden burst of energy, the bird’s beak springs open and it begins to whistle like a kettle on the boil. Yana drops the worm into the bird’s bright pink maw and in a single gulp it’s gone. Clearly there’s some life in the creature yet.
Yana passes me a grub from the plastic box in her tool bag. “Your turn,” she says as the grub pulsates across the surface of my palm, yellow and faintly hairy, like a severed toe spasming away. I use the pliers to crush its head and then play mother. Reliable as a clockwork cuckoo, the bird opens wide. Its fragility terrifies me. Bone china with a feather boa. I gingerly set the reflexively squirming grub into its beak and wait for it to start chomping, but instead the bird just carries on screaming and the grub rolls out.
“You have to really shove it in,” says Yana, stabbing at the air with her index finger.
I abandon the pliers. I can’t bear to use such a hard metal implement on something so soft and delicate. I push the grub toward the rim of the bird’s black throat with the tip of my finger instead. The bird’s squealing intensifies, and then morphs into a sort of gremlin-like yum-yum as peristalsis kicks in and the worm is taken down below. The bird doesn’t stop there. I feel the strong, circular muscles of its esophagus convulse against the end of my finger as it tries to swallow me too. I swiftly withdraw my hand. The bird chirps, tucks its head beside its wing, and falls back to sleep.
“What now?” I say.
“Get more worms,” Yana says. “I think we’ll have to feed it every twenty minutes and we’re already running out.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Featherhood includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
One spring day, a baby magpie falls out of its nest and into Charlie Gilmour’s life. By the time the creature develops shiny black feathers that inspire the name Benzene, Charlie and the bird have forged an unbreakable bond.
While caring for Benzene, Charlie comes across a poem about a jackdaw, written by his biological father, an eccentric British poet named Heathcote Williams who vanished when Charlie was six months old. The poem about the jackdaw sets Charlie on a course of grappling with Heathcote’s abandonment, uncovering who his father is as he contemplates becoming a father himself.
Over time, Benzene helps Charlie unravel his fears about repeating the past. Complete with nest building, flying lessons, and moments of unexpected joy, Featherhood is the unforgettable story of a love affair between a man and a bird. It is also a profound and moving memoir about a man who learns from a bird about growing into himself.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the Prologue, Charlie describes a magpie tumbling to the ground in a junkyard. How does this introduction shape our understanding of the story to follow? What would be different without it?
2. What is Charlie’s first impression of the magpie? How do the myths surrounding magpies influence his—and our—feelings about this creature?
3. Charlie writes of him and his girlfriend: “If Yana represents order, then I am chaos.” How does this dynamic develop over the course of the book? What other couples in books, film, or television might fit that description?
4. How do we learn about Charlie’s origin story? In what ways is it similar to or different from Benzene’s?
5. Charlie says early on: “No point getting attached to something that isn’t going to stick around.” Why doesn’t he follow his own advice? In Chapter 4, how do Charlie and Benzene start bonding?
6. Charlie’s stepfather decides to adopt him in Chapter 8. How does the young Charlie negotiate this transition? What are his feelings about changing his name? Why does he call it his first betrayal?
7. On page 71, Charlie writes: “To my childish mind, Heathcote seemed like an ideal father: a Fagin-like figure who would teach you to steal handkerchiefs and let you drink gin. A man who willfully broke the rules; who could levitate and eat fire.” What are examples from Heathcote’s life that live up to that comparison? How might those qualities in a father figure be challenging for a young child?
8. Why does caring for Benzene allow Charlie to reach out and try again with his father? What happened previously when he attempted to connect with him?
9. On page 100, Charlie reflects on Yana asking him about how he feels about having kids. He asks himself a series of questions. Discuss what he means when he says, “What if I repeat Heathcote’s mistakes? What if I repeat my own?” What are his thoughts about nature vs. nurture?
10. On page 106, Charlie reads Heathcote’s writings about the moment when his Jack Daw left him. How does this change Charlie’s feelings toward Heathcote? What does it reveal about Charlie’s relationship with Benzene?
11. In Chapter 24, Charlie interacts with his sisters, China and Lily, for the first time. Based on their comments, what was it actually like to have Heathcote for a father, and how does that differ from what Charlie has imagined?
12. In Chapter 25, Benzene decides to build a nest on top of Charlie’s parents’ fridge. What do you learn about how a magpie nests? How does it mirror Charlie and Yana’s making a home together?
13. Throughout the book, note how Charlie specifically adapts to living with Benzene. How does he learn to listen to Benzene, and how does Benzene make his feelings known?
14. In Chapter 36, Charlie goes through Heathcote’s belongings and finds a small image of his mother “juggling in a field, silver balls suspended mid-flight and a grin frozen on her face” (page 229). What was her life like with Heathcote, and how does the fairy tale of how they met and first lived together differ from the reality of what it was?
15. What happens when Charlie tries to set Benzene free the first time? What about later in the story? How do the emotional and physical stakes change over time?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read H Is for Hawk, another book about the healing relationship between a grieving human and a bird. How is Helen’s relationship with her goshawk Mabel similar to Charlie’s with Benzene? How is it different?
2. Read Oliver Twist. Compare the character of Fagin to Charlie’s portrait of his father. How do they compare? How are they different? Who’s more like Oliver himself—Charlie or Benzene?
3. For some scene setting, follow @magpie_daily to get a sense for Benzene’s daily happenings. Does reading about and watching Benzene change how you look at birds in the wild?
4. After Yana brings home an injured Benzene, the bird becomes part of the family. What stories do you and others in your group have of adopting wildlife? How did it go?