Oct/Nov 2015  •   Reviews & Interviews

Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Review by Ann Skea

Grief is the Thing with Feathers.
Max Porter.
Faber. 2015. 114 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 32376 0.

This is a strange and wonderful book—sad, funny, realistic, fanciful, moving, and utterly bizarre by turns. It has attracted comments like "astonishing," "extraordinary," and "truly remarkable," and it was long-listed for the 2015 Guardian First Book Award.

It is a book about grief and Crow—not Ted Hughes' Crow, although the father of the two small boys in the book is a Ted Hughes scholar, but about Crow: "a template... a myth to be slipped into."

This Crow arrives in the aftermath of the sudden death of the man's wife—the boys' mother. He intends to be "friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom... analyst and babysitter." And he erupts into the family home as a vulgar, crude, combative, confronting, amoral, ridiculous presence—pure Crow, performing, as he says, "crow stuff." His idea of "therapeutic method" is just to be there, getting in the way, commenting, telling stories and grounding everything in what, in a rare philosophical moment, he calls his "highly articulated care programme."

The voices of Dad, the Boys, and Crow alternate in brief passages of text which are sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, sometimes metaphor, dreams or fairy tale, and which are often funny and always quite unique. This strange mixture effectively captures the disorientating power of grief and the need to carry on with the everyday activites of living. Dad cares for the boys and argues and fights with Crow, which seems to help him. The Boys behave like any small boys: they quarrel and fight, make up stories about their mother's death, annoy their father, and care for him with simple acts of kindness. "Some of the time we tell the truth," says one, "because it's one way of being nice to Dad." And Crow cares for them all as best he can, confusing them, lying to them, horrifying them, and making them laugh and cry.

In an interview in The Guardian (12 September 2015), Max Porter spoke of experiencing the death of his father when he was just six years old. Some of that experience makes its way into this book, but mostly it is a unique creation. And this small volume is beautifully crafted in every way, from the writing to the presentation of the book itself, with its black, cawing crow perched atop the words of the title on the cover and its varied page-layouts.

Some of the references in the book will be recognized by Ted Hughes' readers, which is delightful but not essential. Some of the other references are more obscure but exactly right for the context in which they occur. Crow, for example, boastingly mentions St Vincent of Lisbon, without elaboration. St Vincent was a martyr whose body was protected by ravens. Crow also refers to "George-Dyer-on-the-shitter" (a Francis Bacon painting) and "Grunewald, the nails in the hand," art and artists perfectly suited to bodily functions and death, about which Crow seems to know a great deal.

Such an unusual book takes a little getting used to, and its humor is sometimes black and often crazy, but the very oddness of the book works a kind of magic, not just for Dad and the Boys, but for the reader, too.


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