A few years ago I read Rebecca Hunt’s moving debut novel “Mr Chartwell” about Churchill’s “black dog” of depression which is given a physical form. Similarly, Max Porter gives grief a living body of a crow in his debut. But this is an entirely different kind of book. Inspired by Ted Hughes “Crow” poems, this bird infiltrates the lives of a Dad and his Sons following the death of the Mother. It taunts them, plays games with them, offers contradictory bits of wisdom and makes dirty rhymes. The narrative switches between the three perspectives of Dad, Sons and Crow to form an impressionist picture of the years of grief following the loss of the mother. It would be difficult to classify this book. It could be called a novella or poetry/dramatic monologues or self help or a creative literary treatise. Its genre isn’t important because what “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” does is bluntly convey the fact of profound loss and the complicated ways people react to that loss.
What’s so powerful about this book is the way Porter gives the reader the merest outline of these characters lives, yet I was able to experience and relate to their loss completely. He does this with pointed details of smells or memories or bits of dialogue which draw you into the moment and the feeling. Frequently the revolving set of narrators create stories of “Once upon a time…” which evoke alternate realities in order to make sense of the harshness of the true reality they inhabit. Rather than coming across as fantastical or ridiculous, Crow’s physical presence seems natural. It’s a living form which embodies the extraneous forces which have created emotional havoc in their lives. His presence is painful but needed. Conversely, what’s unnatural is the life which persists outside this enclosed house of mourning. The people on the outside who move on in life and the passing of time without the mother are the things which are monstrous. Because the mother is still so real for the Dad and his Sons, the world’s continuation without her is an abomination.
This is a book to ponder and puzzle over, to read very slowly and cautiously despite its necessary brevity. “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” sparks with sharp humour, sensitive emotion and cutting truth.