Novella a Day in May #10

Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter (2015, 114 pages)

Max Porter’s first novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers was published to much fanfare in 2015,which is encouraging in today’s increasingly conservative publishing industry, as this novella is a true original. In fact, it’s difficult to call it a novella, as its more like a patchwork of prose, poetry, monologue, fantasy and the commonplace.

A woman has died suddenly, leaving behind a husband and two young boys, reeling with grief. Into their shattered lives comes Crow:

“I find humans dull except in grief. There are very few in health, disaster, famine, atrocity. Splendour or normality that interest me (interest ME!) but the motherless children do. Motherless children are pure crow. For a sentimental bird it is ripe, rich and delicious to raid such a nest.”

Crow is far from sentimental: he is foul-mouthed, aggressive and terrifying. He is also exactly what the family need; particularly a family headed by a Ted Hughes scholar.

“In the middle, yours truly. A smack of black plumage and a stench of death. Ta-daa!”

The voices alternate between Crow, Dad and Boys. The mixed narrative, compiled of short passages and lots of white space on the page effectively captures the disorientation and incoherence of grief. We never know exactly what Crow is: metaphor, collective fantasy, actual manifestation. The oversized bird, the madness and uncontrollable force of grief, exists alongside Dad trying to keep a hold on the everyday concerns of raising two boys:

“There was very little division between their imaginary and real worlds, and people talked of coping mechanisms and childhood and time. Many people said ‘You need time’, when what we needed was washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows.”

The Boys are not distinguished from each other. They play and pretend, they are violent and angry and thoughtful and decent. Their passages are the most poem-like:

“Dad has gone. Crow is in the bathroom

where he often is because he likes the

acoustics. We are crowded by the closed

door listening. He is speaking very slowly,

very clearly. He sounds old-fashioned, like

Dad’s vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas.”

Grief is the Thing with Feathers deserves all its plaudits and then some. It is a taut, beautifully written, experimental exploration of grief which effectively captures the fallout of a death on a family. It is brave, tender, unsentimental and deeply moving. Cathy over at 746 Books wrote recently of the theatrical adaptation which looks amazing. I’m sure this tale will transfer powerfully to stage.

“They offer me a space on the sofa next to them and the pain of them being so naturally kind is like appendicitis. I need to double over and hold myself because they are so kind and keep regenerating and recharging their kindness without any input from me.”


Image from here

23 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May #10

  1. Completely agree with you about this one. I found it an exhausting and emotional read first time through, but such an important book which repays re-reading. I had not heard about the play, which sounds incredible. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a real shame, but maybe with the fragmentary style you have to be in the mood? A fragmentary grief novel (think I’ve invented a genre there) I couldn’t get on with at all was Lincoln in the Bardo. I finished it, but it just never drew me in, due to the style. So many people loved it though, I wouldn’t want to put you off if you’ve not read it!

      With this, I thought it brilliantly captured the chaos and contradictions of grief so with your specialist interest I’d urge you to give it another chance! (And unlike Lincoln in the Bardo it’s really short 😉 )


    • What a compliment – thank you! I hope I haven’t steered you wrong but I really did think it was excellent. The trouble with all the over-hyping that goes on is that it can have the opposite effect and work against authors…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Experimental” “grief”. Hurrah! The two magic words that form a protective spell around my TBR! 😉

    More seriously, I feel I’d hate this, but the quotes are very compelling. Fabulous writing and imagery. I’m strangely tempted…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s exactly it, it’s more of a poem than a novel and I flicked through it in the library knowing I was about to get out a piece of poetry/prose with a beatnicky/paragraphs all over the shop feeling and so didn’t feel disappointed. I don’t know if enjoy is the right word, but I liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

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