In folklore, magpies are said to bring bad luck, but that certainly wasn’t the case for Charlie Gilmour. An abandoned baby bird helped this young British author finally exorcise the long shadow cast by his biological father, who abandoned him as an infant. Gilmour's remarkable memoir, Featherhood: A Memoir of Two Fathers and a Magpie, explains in lively, compelling detail how caring for this bird prepared him to become a father himself.
With razor-sharp wit and storytelling, Gilmour interweaves the story of this bird, whom he and his partner named Benzene, with that of his past. His biological father, Heathcote Williams, was a poet, actor and activist very much in the public eye. After Heathcote left, Gilmour's mother eventually married Pink Floyd musician David Gilmour, who adopted Charlie. Despite the fact that Gilmour ended up having what he calls “a dream childhood,” thoughts of the elusive Heathcote haunted him. “Heathcote has lived and breathed in my head all my life,” he writes, “a sort of animated scarecrow constructed from secondhand stories and snatched encounters.” Heathcote, who was an amateur magician, would occasionally appear in his son’s life, only to vanish once again. When Gilmour was an adult, he spent a little time with Heathcote, who was by that point approaching death, and Gilmour paints a searingly honest portrait of this culmination of their fraught relationship.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our interview with Charlie Gilmour, author of Featherhood.
Gilmour freely admits that he was an unlikely candidate to become a wildlife rescuer, writing, “Even healthy animals haven’t had the best of luck in my hands.” Nonetheless, the tiny, ailing Benzene grew up and thrived—while proceeding to take over the household. Undeterred by Benzene’s free rein—not to mention her droppings—Gilmour became completely smitten by, if not obsessed with, the magpie, even holding birthday parties for her with invited guests. Benzene's life "seems more akin to that of a medieval prince than to that of a bird," Gilmour writes, "filled as it is with music, flowers, shiny baubles, and meat.”
Benzene became so tame that Gilmour feared releasing her into the wild, and at the end of the book he cautions readers not to follow his example but to consult wildlife rescue organizations instead. Nonetheless, he reveled in the experience, concluding, “Caring for this creature this past year has brought me out of myself, made me see it’s not just catastrophe that lurks in the unknown; there’s beauty to be found there too.”
Worthy comparisons can be made between Featherhood and Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk, and Gilmour was also influenced by Philip Roth’s memoir Patrimony. Gilmour’s upbringing could hardly be more different from Tara Westover’s, but like Educated, Featherhood represents the debut of a talented young writer reckoning with an unusual past.