Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

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.

222 Grief cover

The Story

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.

The style

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.

222 epigram

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


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)

Carrion Crow in silhouette: Andreas Plank Dec 2010 adapted from Aomrikuma via WikiCommons

Carrion Crow in silhouette: Andreas Plank Dec 2010 adapted from Aomrikuma via WikiCommons

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.

222 Crow Hughes cover


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)


222 crow rspbIt’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

Related links:

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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Filed under Books, poetry, Reading, Reviews

11 Responses to Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

  1. Eileen

    Well, hopefully this will be the first book I shall read in 2016. I’m off to a bookshop this afternoon to get a copy. I am grieving right now and am sad so I think this book will be perfect at this moment. I will also appreciate it on several other levels especially the layout and structure. Thanks Caroline for pointing that out. I think I shall enjoy ‘the brilliant pastiche of the book club questions’. Having just finished Daughter I was appalled to see the crass questions that followed immediately the story ended. I couldn’t help reading them and was cross that my first moments following the ending of the reading were filled with anger at the daft and dubious questions posed. Who constructs them and why? So patronising! But that’s another subject. I’m off to Dorchester right now to get Grief is the Thing with Feathers.

    • Caroline

      I’m very sorry that you will be starting 2016 in grief. And this book is certainly strong medicine. I thought Crow was a great invention. Let me know what you think.
      Commiserations. And love.

  2. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about this book, and it’s definitely on my list for the future, but I suspect I might have to find the right time for something like this. Grief is a strange thing; it can sneak up and ambush us at any moment (even several years after the loss of a loved one).

    I recall reading Max Porter’s piece in The Guardian – it really struck a chord with me as well. Thank you for writing so eloquently about this book.

    • Caroline

      Don’t hold back from reading this. While the grief of Dad and Boys is strong, it is part of their living. Crow is different, not permenant.

  3. Eileen

    The best book I have read this year.

  4. I can’t believe that I’m sitting here at my desk ordering MORE books when piles and piles of books mount up all around me, falling over and cascading over the floor, their words spilling everywhere….I have spent the entire time after Christmas feeling ruthless and now I go and make matters worse. HOwever, this one is short and unfortunately pertinent . Whether we like it or not, death and grief are part of living. I’m going to order it before logic kicks in xx Rowena

    • Caroline

      This is not a book you will regret adding to your mounting piles of books Rowena. And anyway, when was logic part of book buying?

      Let us know how you get on with it.

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. Sounds lovely, Caroline. Rowena had already recommended it to me. I didn’t realise she had seen it here on your blog also. It is now on my MUST buy and read list.

    • Caroline

      Definitely one to look at. It received lots of mentions in the book of 2015 kind of articles, but I wrote this post before I saw that.

  6. Pingback: Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter, 2015 | A Devoted Reader

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