Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is one of those rare pieces of literature which leave you slightly reeling once they’re through. It is a short piece, a novella, I was finished all too quickly but somehow I sense that this is going to be a book that will linger. Borrowing its title from Emily Dickinson’s famous poem, Max Porter’s debut is a study on mourning, on how a father and two young sons respond to the death of their adored wife and mother and how the arrival of the Crow helps and hinders their recovery. The father is a Ted Hughes scholar, writing a book on “Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis“, so the Crow appears to come directly from these words, ready to act as psychiatrist, comforter, babysitter – to take on whichever role is needed and, like a brownie in a fairytale, to not leave until he is no longer needed.
This is a difficult story to summarise – it does not have a linear narrative, none of the characters are named and it has no distinct structure. Instead, it muses on that strangest and heaviest of emotions – grief – from every conceivable angle. Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is elliptical, the sentences sparse and Porter deploys his silences with great effectiveness, showing three people at the heart of something awful. Grief is the dark cloud, the invisible weight on your shoulders, the tap on the shoulder reminding you even when you’re happy that you shouldn’t be, the predator that sneaks up behind you when you least suspect it, leaving you crying in the most inconvenient places. Truly, this is a book for those who have the battle-scars. For those who nod and understand why a father and his two sons would find it entirely normal to pretend that a crow had come to live with them as a way of rationalising their bereavement.
Grief Is The Thing explores the more baffling sides of bereavement through a series of vignettes – after years of being scolded by their mother about toothpaste flecks on the mirror, the trio take pleasure in not wiping the bathroom mirror for several years after her death – and then when all of sudden one of them cleans it, they decide that yes, this was better. It reminded me of the evening after my grandmother’s funeral, when I was sitting in her kitchen talking to my Dad. I remarked to him that it felt as though she could walk in at any moment. We both then looked around the kitchen, at the piles of paper, the dirty glasses and with a guilty jolt, I really, really hoped that she wouldn’t. Not just then.
The boys struggle as they find themselves forgetting parts of their mother and punish their father in return by deliberately mis-remembering parts of him, by breaking his belongings. It is utterly illogical – it is grief. It reminds me of how for several weeks after my own grandmother’s death, I would find myself eyeing elderly women on the bus, in the supermarket and feeling irritated since I calculated that they were both younger than her and in overall worse physical health but that yet she was the one who had died. The novel emphasises the conflict in the natural desire to recover along with the need to retain a relationship with the one who has been lost. I will never move on from the death of my grandfather, or my grandmother, I will always miss my step-grandparents. The challenge is keeping them alive to me when they are no longer alive to the world.
Grief itself is not necessarily confined to bereavement though; I thought about how long and how hard I mourned the loss of a long-term friend but over time, the pain of his betrayal has faded away to a historical fact – whenever I see him now, I feel nothing. But the saddest part is that as the pain shifted slowly into oblivion, so too did any memory of why I had been friends with him in the first place. In my head, I remember being fond of him, that we enjoyed each other’s company, but I don’t feel it any more – I just remember all the times when he was rude or petty or ignorant. He has been utterly forgiven for his failings but unfortunately it is his merits which have been forgotten. By contrast, in grief for a loved one who departs by death, the bond is not broken by them, the conversation never really stops. The boys still have mental exchanges with their mother far into adulthood, they silently apologise to her when they side-step questions about the nature of her death, their father squirms and struggles as he attempts further relationships.
Grief Is The Thing is never saccharine even for a moment, saved from the implication by the savage affection of the Crow. He tears into a ‘tabloid-despicable’ demon, he is at times almost maternal but remains a comic antithesis of the fairy-tale tradition whereby orphaned children are cared for by animals. He is the Crow. A broader knowledge of the poetry of Ted Hughes would give me a greater awareness of his symbolism, but the Crow is less a being angry at God than he is a well-intentioned creature determined to protect the traumatised trio of mourners.
Ultimately, this is a book that has to be experienced, drunken in slowly – I read it with more than one nod of recognition. It is an odd little book, but the words it speaks are wise ones and sweet is the song it sings.
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Published by Faber & Faber on September 15th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Nature, Animals, Birds, Family & Relationships, General
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