Book Review: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham

Dates Read: 08/01/2021-20/01/2021

My Rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book on my ereader and loved it, but I may well revisit in the future in audio format because I suspect that hearing this unusual memoir in the author’s own voice may well lead me to revise my review and add that elusive fifth star. To be clear, 4 stars from me is brilliant, it means I’ve enjoyed, empathised with and been entertained by the read, but the fifth is reserved for works I find truly exceptional. In audio format, this book may well be deserving.

Having been a huge Chris Packham fan since his Really Wild days, and an avid viewer of any of his engaging TV outputs, I already knew that I find him an intriguing personality. I kind of envy anyone who has such overwhelming passions and encyclopedic knowledge of their subject, and Packham is well known for his obsessions with the natural world (and his music choices, I believe). However, I know very little about him personally – I’m not particularly interested in the whole ‘celebrity’ thing but I am interested in what shapes people, so I was intrigued to read Fingers in the Sparkle Jar.

What’s really interesting and a change from the usual formulaic memoir is that much of it is written in the third person – observing the ‘strange’ child/man, always an outsider, misunderstood, obsessive and who doesn’t conform to social norms but who knows he needs to try to fit in, even if he doesn’t know how. It’s no secret, of course, that Packham was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as an adult and anyone familiar with the autism spectrum would recognise this now in the 21st century. Packham is a little older than me but as a child of the 60’s myself, I know what a different world it was back in the 1970’s.

His story initially focuses on his time as a young child, developing awareness and beginning to research and understand the natural world. We follow his first true love, a kestrel he takes from the nest and which becomes the most important thing in his life. We ache with grief for him when the kestrel dies, and celebrate when he discovers punk and finally finds somewhere he can belong. And we sob in sympathy as he undertakes therapy as part of his recovery following a suicide attempt in his forties.

Where this book really comes alive is when we hear his voice in the first person sections. He actually seems to see things in a different way, remembering every minute detail and describing it in dazzling, mesmerising prose. Packham clearly is a man who gives everything or nothing. This is glorious technicolour, no grey. He may not always interpret the situation correctly but he is brutally honest in his memories.

It’s not always an easy read, I found myself tutting at him taking eggs from nests, but then I remember that when I was a kid, people did still do that. And we should applaud Packham for making no apologies in this regard, in the same way he doesn’t try to hide behind his later Asperger’s diagnosis.

I do hope we have a better understanding of children with Asperger’s now and that out there there are some young people inspired by him, and thoroughly recommend this difficult but mesmerising read.

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