Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

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Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all

It may seem perverse to reinterpret those sweet words of Emily Dickinson’s about hope into a reflection on bereavement, but Max Porter’s exceptional debut novel tweaks its poetic forebears – chiefly Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ and Ted Hughes’s Crow – to create an impressive hybrid response to sudden loss. It’s a strong contender on this year’s Guardian First Book Award longlist.

The novel is composed of three first-person voices: Dad, Boys (sometimes singular and sometimes plural) and Crow. The father and his two young sons are adrift in mourning; the boys’ mum died after an unspecified accident in their London flat. The three narratives resemble monologues in a play, with short lines often laid out on the page more like stanzas of a poem than prose paragraphs. The closest comparison is with David Grossman’s Falling Out of Time (2014), written after the death of the Israeli author’s son, which similarly blends poetry, dramatic monologues and prose to make a whole new language for the unspeakable.

Like Poe’s raven or Churchill’s black dog (as brought to life by Rebecca Hunt in her debut novel, 2010’s Mr Chartwell), Crow is both a real creature who blows into Dad’s life a few days after his wife’s death and a symbol – a larger-than-life representation of grief. ‘In the middle, yours truly. A smack of black plumage and a stench of death. Ta-daa!’

In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.

Crow promises (or is that threatens?) Dad to stick around until he’s no longer needed. His voice is the soul of the book: witty, onomatopoeic and often macabre, with plays on words and repetition:

Head down, bottle-top, potter.
Head down, mop-a-lot, hopper.
He could learn a lot from me.
That’s why I’m here.

Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar writing an essay about the poet’s profoundly odd and disturbing 1970 collection, Crow. Once, as a teenager, he even saw his hero give a poetry reading in Oxford. If you’ve read Crow, some of the language in Porter’s book will feel familiar (like Hughes’s line ‘Who is stronger than hope? Death’); while it’s not strictly necessary to have read the Hughes, you might like to have a copy around to read in tandem or afterwards.

There is not an awful lot of plot in this short book. Crow defends the nest from the worst demons of grief. In a metaphor made real, when Dad takes the Boys to a bird of prey display, they cheer on a crow as it successfully chases off a bald eagle. The boys fight a lot, and make up fairy tales about finding their mother. Sometimes they look back from a more or less functional adulthood:

We seem to take it in ten-year turns to be
defined by it, sizeable chunks of cracking
on, then great sink-holes of melancholy.

Same as anyone, really.

In general, though, this is not a book of events but one of emotion, and the best passages are achingly honest reflections on the finality of death, as when Dad runs through the relics his wife left behind:

She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.

That litany of now-useless possessions is a poignant reminder of a presence only experienced in the novel as an absence. As the end approaches, people keep hinting to Dad about the necessity of ‘moving on’, and by trying out a new relationship and finally scattering his wife’s ashes he gets closer to the ever-mythical closure. The most powerful sign of his recovery, however, is that Crow decides it’s time for him to go:

Man    [You knew] I would be done grieving?

Bird    No, not at all. You were done being hopeless. Grieving is something you’re still doing, and something you don’t need a crow for.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Porter reveals that he was inspired by two things: his love of Ted Hughes’s poetry and the death of his father when he was six. The result is both homage and elegy, with a particularly beautiful, triumphant ending. It’s the sort of meditative book you could polish off in an hour or choose to linger over for days. Judging by the strength of this novella, Porter has great things ahead of him.

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An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK, and blogs at Bookish Beck.

Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (Faber & Faber: London, 2015). 978-0571323760, 128 pp., hardback.

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