Tag Archives: Dylan Thomas

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

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

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

Dad

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)

Boys

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)

Recommended

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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Bookword’s top ten stories of women’s old age

When Paul Bailey, novelist, compiled his list of Top Ten Stories of Old Age for the Guardian in February 2011 he mentioned only two by women writers: ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ a short story by Alice Munro and Memento Mori by Muriel Spark – at 3rd and 4th place respectively. Where were the women writing about older women? There is an irony in this list, which I will reveal later.

Bookword’s top ten stories

There are plenty of strong, bold, feisty and resolute older women in fiction, mostly created by women writers. Some of these older women hate the idea of dying, some live as they always have, some take on new challenges, some are brilliant and some are ill or suffer with dementia. Here’s Bookword’s list of top ten stories of older women, (with links) in an order that reflects reading of the blog series (see below). It includes one male author.

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor explores some of the painful and amusing aspects of being older and neglected by family. A key word might be dignity.25 Stone Angel
  2. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, a Canadian novelist, telling the story of Hagar Shipley as she resists the consequences of her family’s attempts to do what they believe is best for her.
  3. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. On her death bed, Claudia Hampton resists the infantalising aspects of hospital care and reveals that she has always been a feisty woman. As an old woman she is all the women she has ever been.117 All passion cover
  4. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West tells the story of Lady Slane released into widowhood after many years of being married to a great man. She blossoms with new friendships and independent decision-making.
  5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, this novel is about a grandmother and granddaughter and it reveals another strong older woman, with the full range of emotions and much wisdom. She is the kind of grandmother who has wisdom without being a Mrs Pepperpot.

    Dorothy Whipple

    Dorothy Whipple

  6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple is another grandmother/ granddaughter story, set in a northern town in the early 20th century. The novel reveals the strength of the old woman in family relationships.
  7. A Passage to India by EM Forster. The portrait of Mrs Moore is one of the many attractions of this classic novel. Mrs Moore infuses the action long after she departed.164 cover S Riding
  8. South Riding by Winifred Holtby features several strong characters, including Mrs Beadows, an alderwoman, who provides compassionate service on the council to her impoverished inter-war Yorkshire community.
  9. A Reckoning by May Sarton focuses on Laura Spelman’s attempts to meet death on her own terms. Strictly speaking the heroine did not meet my criteria, being only 60, but the story is an interesting one, and the main character faces the end of her life with determination to do it her way.
  10. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. I loved the respectful portrait of Maud who is becoming increasingly confused. There is much humour in this book, but not at her expense. It does reveal the confusion and debility of cognitive decline. And it raises important issues about family and intergenerational care for people with dementia. 151 E missiing cover 3

Fiction about older women

I strongly believe that we need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about those who are less visible in our world than white, middle-aged, males or beautiful young people. Fiction allows us to enter other worlds and lives which we might not otherwise experience.

The series reviewing older women in fiction on this blog began after I attended a course about growing older. All the examples from literature we were given related to men: Odysseus, King Lear, Prospero, some poetry including, of course, Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle. Where, I wondered, were the older women? I began seeking out and reviewing fiction about older women for Bookword. To date there have been 16 reviews and there is a fine list of nearly 50 titles of fiction relating to older women compiled with the help of readers. Add to the list!

A note of an irony

The irony of Paul Bailey’s article is this. In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor Mrs Palfrey makes friends with a young novelist, Ludo, who undertakes to act the part of her nephew in the Claremont Hotel. In his introduction to this novel Paul Bailey reveals that Elizabeth Taylor met him and based some of Ludo’s circumstances on his life.

Which book would you have placed in the top ten stories of women ageing? Is it even included in the Bookword list? Please add your comments.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews