It doesn’t happen very often. I opened the book to just get a flavour and I found myself reading the final page about an hour later. It’s a short book at just over 100 pages. There are lots of white spaces, giving the appearance of a poetry book. Grief is the thing with feathers is one of most powerful books I have read this year. I have revisited it several times since that first reading.
A father and twin sons are grieving at the sudden death of the wife/mother. Crow arrives to look after them all and stays until he is no longer needed. The text is presented in the voices of Dad, Crow and Boys. There is no narrative, although the progress of Dad’s book about Ted Hughes marks some changes over time. Grief must be endured. You don’t need time and you don’t move on. You endure. It’s hard, lonely and very, very raw. That is what Grief is the thing with feathers communicates.
Max Porter’s style is a mixture of poetry and prose in stream of consciousness. Poetry runs through the novella, from the appearance, title and epigram. The epigram by Emily Dickinson has been altered by Crow: That love is all there is, … Crow is a great invention.
And the poetic feel runs through the subject matter, Ted Hughes, R S Thomas, Crow’s passages, to the final two sentences. Father and sons are at the sea to scatter the ashes.
And the boys were behind me, a tide-wall of laughter and yelling, hugging my legs, tripping and grabbing, leaping, spinning, stumbling, roaring, shrieking and the boys shouted
I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU
and their voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything. (114)
The novella is in three parts, A Lick of Night, Defence of the Nest and Permission to Leave. And as the whole text is in the voices of those three, the reader is kept very near in the closed world of grief.
Crow enters, his smell arriving before Dad sees him.
There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather and yeast. (6)
Crow is amusing, perceptive, arrogant, caring and violent. He tells the father that he wont leave until he is not needed any more.
It could be argued that Crow is Ted Hughes’s creation as the novella acknowledges.
‘Thank you Crow.’
‘All part of the service.’
‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’
‘You’re welcome. But please remember that I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, please. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.’
‘He never called you a motherfucker.’
‘Lucky me.’ (70)
Crow is a mysterious delight. He writes notes for Dad for his own literary memoir; he puts him straight about ghosts, sets comprehension questions for the reader (a brilliant pastiche of those book club questions you find in the back of novels), and is poetic in his description of the triptych of death (Father, Mother, Twins). Crow, I think I should meet you in Ted Hughes poetry, Crow, also published by Faber & Faber. Ted Hughes knew a thing or two about wives who die.
The bereaved husband carries the story, but his contributions are labelled Dad and thus his contribution is located in his relationship to his sons. At times he can’t cope and Crow steps in to babysit, but mostly he is there for them.
Dad shows us the full range of his grief: the incompetence of the days following her death, his memories, the continual presence of the absent one, physical missing as well as the practical woman.
The whole city is my missing her.
Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet. (50)
Dad allows the reader to both see and empathise with his grief, while he is also able to reflect upon it.
There is a fascinating constant exchange between Crow’s natural self and his civilised self, between the scavenger and the philosopher, the goddess of complete being and the black stain, between Crow and his birdness. It seems to me to be the self-same exchange between mourning and living, then and now. I could learn a lot from him. (22)
Sometimes the boys speak independently, but are not differentiated. They are gentle, kind, fun, sad, amusing, interested in death and imaginary crows and all the things young boys should be interested in. They accept the change to their father, miss their mother and occasionally their father.
Dad has gone. Crow is in the bathroom, where he often is because he likes the acoustics. We are crouched by the closed door listening. He is speaking very slowly, very clearly. He sounds old-fashioned, like Dad’s vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas. He says SUDDEN. He says TRAUMA. He says Induced . . . he coughs and spits and tries again. INDUCES. He says SUDDEN TRAUMA INDUCED ALTERATION OF THE ALERT STATE.
Dad comes back. Crow changes his tune. (23)
The boys add some lightness to the novella, but lightness true to their youthfulness. And they also represent continuing life and change and will live with the death in a way that their father never can. And they will carry their father after Crow has gone as we learn from those final words:
… and their voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything. (114)
It’s a beautiful book, the design (cover, paper and arrangements of words on the page). I love to have book like this on my shelves, even if I am not sure whether to place it among poetry, philosophy, psychology or fiction.
I was so affected by this book that I was relieved to read that Max Porter lives with his wife and children in London.
Shortlisted for Goldsmiths Prize 2015 and Guardian First Book Award 2015.
Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter published in 2015 by Faber & Faber 114pp
The review by Kirsty Gunn in The Guardian in September 2015 alerted me to this book.
Max Porter wrote about writing Grief in the Guardian in November 2015. Of Crow he says ‘I didn’t know how badly I wanted to write him until I did.’
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