Since its publication a few weeks ago, Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers has hit the bookshop where I work like a storm – or perhaps like an intrusive crow flying straight in through your front door. Everybody seems to be buying it (including me). The book follows a Ted Hughes scholar and his two young sons as they try to recover from the death of their wife and mother. By some strange poetic necessity, Crow flies straight from the pages of Ted Hughes’s poetry into the lives of this family. Reading the book, too, is a bit like having Ted Hughes’s Crow fly straight through your front door: at first confusing, perhaps unnerving, but ultimately rewarding, astounding and utterly beautiful.
What I love about Greif is the Thing with Feathers is first and foremost the form of the book. That, and its writing style – they can’t really be separated. It is, I suppose, a novella, yet at times it feels like a fable, and at others it slips seamlessly into poetry. At times Porter echoes Ted Hughes in rhythm and style, while at others he clearly seeks his own rhythm, something almost between poetry and prose. The story spans some years – it’s not quite clear how many – after the mother’s death, but we often slip from one year to the next and back again. We are not offered a chronological story of recovery so much as snapshots, glimpses of the family over time. As well as shifting in time, we shift in narrative voice. Porter switches between Crow, the father and the boys. When ‘the boys’ narrate, we never know which of them is speaking, or if both of them are narrating together. Yet somehow this completely works. Sometimes they speak as ‘we’, sometimes as ‘I’ – they are bound together in their grief, and although at times the voice of distinct individuals emerge within their shared narrative, it doesn’t feel as though it needs separation.
Indeed, one of the most powerful and poignant aspects of the book is the way in which it rests on the line between the universal and the individual. The descriptions of grief, the duality of ‘the boys’ and the anonymity of both them and their father gives the book the feel of a universal fable about loss and recovery. Nonetheless, the book also tells an intensely personal story, from the father’s interest in Ted Hughes, to the other beautiful details we are given – ‘we were small boys with remote-control cars and ink-stamp sets and we knew something was up’ – ‘She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm). And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.’ – ‘Various other things slipped. We pissed on the seat. We never shut drawers. We did these things to miss her, to keep wanting her.’ Even if we never know these characters’ names, we feel them, the intensity of their personalities and feelings.
In fact, for a novella that is chiefly about a strange talkative fictional crow coming to stay with and watch over a family, it all feels remarkably real. Crow functions both as a metaphor and as a character, and what absurdity and strangeness his presence adds to the book only makes it all the more powerful, all the more touching.
I should add that, while the book takes a great deal from Ted Hughes’s poetry in terms of the character of Crow, I don’t think the novella relies on a former knowledge of the poems themselves, although they may add a little to your appreciation of the book. I have only read a couple of Hughes’s Crow poems, but that was certainly enough to allow me to follow Greif is the Thing with Feathers. The book pays homage to Hughes, and takes inspiration from his work, but it does not, I think, rely on him.
In short, I love this book. It is an incredibly beautiful and complex portrait of a family recovering from loss, written with skill, humour and poignancy. Its poetic narrative style carries its themes and characters with an urgency that makes it hard to put down. It is strange and superb. Read it.
Greatest strength: The sheer staggering beauty of the writing.
Greatest weakness: As does happen every now and then, I cannot fault this book at all.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘My wife shakes her head. She thinks it’s weird that I fondly remember family holidays with an imagery crow, and I remind her that it could have been anything, could have gone any way, but something more or less healthy happened. We miss our Mum, we love our Dad, we wave at crows.
It’s not that weird.’
Next week: The Chimes, by Anna Smail
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