Title: Grief is the Thing with Feathers
Author: Max Porter
Published: Faber & Faber 2015
Not, strictly speaking, a review, but then this isn’t, strictly speaking, a novel. I don’t know how to describe it, but I’ll do my best: in a flat in London, a giant crow moves in with a recently-bereaved family of two motherless boys and a widower. He threatens to stay and help them heal, and then he does. This book is a prose poem, I think, or a series of vignettes. The narrative takes three perspectives: Boys (always treated together), Dad, Crow. The point of view switches between the three over the course of an indeterminate number of years.
There were a lot of things I loved about this book, and a lot of things I didn’t like or didn’t understand. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t know how to review poetry, but I will do my best with some collected thoughts. I’ll start with the bad so that I can end with the good. This is definitely written for people with higher degrees in Meaningful Literature. Crow, who is borrowed from a Ted Hughes poem with which I am not familiar, is generally used as a device rather than a character. He comments constantly on the narrative in which he is participating, in a metafictional way. That didn’t work at all for me, though I understand the artistic merit. Dad, a Ted Hughes scholar, is represented as a highly analytical character. The self-consciousness of Crow’s analysis, the distant way of looking at grief, probably is how someone like that would grieve: observing himself performing mourning, trying to remove himself rather than immerse himself in the process. However, it had the effect of constantly yanking me out of the world and saying “look, look how clever I am”, and I am always aggravated with books that are self-satisfied. I felt like this book didn’t want to be read by an undereducated prole like me. I genuinely can’t see what Crow’s monologues and ramblings added to the book.
Here is another thing: Dad and Boys were completely dependent upon the woman of the house for day-to-day practicalities of their lives, for cleaning and cooking and knowing where to buy washing powder. That irritates me. I hope I would not marry someone who needed a woman to look after him. The mother is almost always represented by the tasks she did for the family, rather than by her personality, especially in the Dad sections. There are exceptions—a memory of a joke she told, the way she told stories. A time she cried. Overall, though, she often seems to be missed practically, physically, logistically–there is very little sense of the person who is being missed. I hope that, when I die, people miss me before they miss my tasks and jobs. This is not to say that the mother is not deeply loved and deeply mourned—she clearly is—but I am so tired of women being the things that they do and not the people that they are.
On the flipside, there were many moments where it was incredibly moving. One thing that will reliably break my heart is the devastating kindness of a sad child looking after a sad grown-up. I saw it sometimes while I was working as a children’s nurse: a little boy who would see someone else’s mum crying across the room and offer to lend her his teddy; a little girl pretending to be excited about her op, to remind her dad not to be afraid. Sometimes this is in the context of healthy families, and sometimes the child is already the caretaker in the relationship. There were snatches of both in this book, moments when the boys are soft or brave or funny for their dad, because they know that he needs that even if they don’t understand why. Their kindness is painful and beautifully rendered. At one point, they are described as carrying their crumpled crepe-paper dad, which is just a wonderful turn of phrase.
There were also flashes of brilliance in conveying the way it must feel to miss someone who has been lost from your house. I have never mourned someone in a house that we shared. There are little glimpses of how that must be always on the edges of your consciousness: She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus). She won’t ever finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm). The assorted detritus of the family’s life former and current together is scattered throughout the book, showing how much their everyday is completely changed and entirely the same.
Lastly, I really love the title. This seems like an odd thing to comment on, but Hope is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson might be my favourite poem, and I enjoyed its use here. The way it is perverted and then incorporated into the book really tied it together, for me. Persevering, doing the work of grieving rather than just shutting down, is in itself a grim kind of hope—the knowledge that somehow you are moving through the grief instead of freezing yourself and your life in one place. It fits well with the rather morbid tone of so many of Dickinson’s works, where darkness and hope are often hand in glove.
If you are much cleverer than me and have written many Masters-level essays about Important Literature, you will probably love this book. However, I don’t really feel qualified to recommend it either way.