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