On occasion you come across a book that is so mesmeric, so delicate, intricate and beautiful that awe is the only appropriate response.
Grief is the thing with feathers by (shockingly) debut author Max Porter is just such a book.
Describing the novel is difficult. For a start, the term novel fails to adequately describe the format, it’s just the best heuristic at hand. Grief is in reality part-prose, part-poetry, part-academic text, part-abstract, freeform, memoir. And it’s all of this within a slender 114 pages.
The plot, such as it exists, centres on a recently widowed scholar and his two young sons. Struggling to deal with their heartrending loss the trio are circling the drain, in danger of disappearing forever. Each of these three is a simple, but expertly drawn, summation of pain and anger and loss. Each has their own voice, distinct from the start.
Then Crow descends. An antropomorphised bird the father alone can see, Crow is determined to rescue the family through any means necessary. As he himself says, they ‘could learn a lot from me / That’s why I’m here.’.
In essence the Crow is a earth-bound psychopomp, but instead of guiding the dead to hell he instead is guiding the psychologically damaged to to the sun-lit uplands of recovery. He proceeds to forcefully thrust the family past its destruction. Crow does this both physically and mentally, sometime screaming their pain away, other times tricking them into accepting the necessity of their feelings.
As a guide Crow is appropriate. The father, a Ted Hughes scholar, has chosen as his escort a figure taken from the Ted Hughes work Crow, which the poet described as his masterpiece. The Crow in Hughes’ poem is a trickster, with character elements taken from mythology, particularly Norse. Porter’s Crow comes from the same place. He is a rude, rough, foul-mouthed, clever troublemaker, who has concentrated his elemental magic on recovery. But he is that and so much more, a ‘friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.’
To bring this character to life, Porter borrows the linguistic playfulness from poetry, which makes Grief an engaging, kaleidoscopic experience. It’s difficult to convey quite how unusual the language of the book is, yet how correct it is for the subject matter. It is experimental, and that might put some readers off, yet having finished it you struggle to think how else the subject matter could have been approached. For example, here’s Crow describing himself:
‘A smack of black plumage and a stench of death. Ta-daa! This is the rotten core, the Grunewald, the nails in the hand, the needle in the arm, the trauma, the bomb, the thing after which we cannot even write poems, the slammed door, the in-principio-erat-verbum. Very What-the-fuck. Very blood-sport.’
The sheer visceral power of such writing beats the reader across the brow on all occasions, demands your attention. And attention is necessary, for the book says something profound about the complete destruction death causes but the absolute need to rebuild and renew in its wake.
As the novel reaches its climax the figures and language are pared back further and further, so by the close you only have clear lines, sketches that perfectly delineate the book’s purpose. The reader is left alone with their own thoughts, their own experiences, with the Crow becoming a guide, an outline, for those, as much as what occurs on the page. For anybody who has experienced loss it is a remarkable moment in time, rarely to be repeated.
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers was published by Faber & Faber on 17th Sept. 2015 and Graywolf Press on June 7th 2016.
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Review by Joseph Surtees
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