Poetic crow permeates saga of loss
Grief is the Thing with Feathers By Max Porter Faber, 128pp, $24.95 (HB)
“Four or five days after she died, I sat alone in the living room wondering what to do.’’ This is the opening statement of the protagonist of Max Porter’s debut novella, a middle-aged academic and writer, and father of two young boys, left suddenly bereft after the accidental death of his wife.
This sense of lostness, the inability to know what to do or how to be, permeates this book, and is echoed in its remarkable hybrid form.
Told in a series of short, dense fragments, almost like prose poems in their rhythm and lyricism, and interspersed with dramatic monologues, fables and occasional lists, Grief is a Thing with Feathers relies as much on absences and half-articulated longings as on its snapshots of difficult domestic life to capture the emotional intricacies of this small, traumatised family — and it is precisely this that makes it so powerful and haunting to read.
Dropping in one evening on this brittle, grieving trio is the raucous, startling figure of Crow, a huge, wild and always hideously alive bird, who swears, ‘‘I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.’’ Crow is fantastical in appearance, and metaphorically linked to the father’s work — he is a Ted Hughes scholar, writing a book on Hughes’s crow poems, which were published shortly after the death of Hughes’s wife Sylvia Plath.
But Crow is a real and physical presence to all three human inhabitants of the house, disruptive and by turns cruel and kind, and a foil for the dangerous and irrational impulses of grief they are otherwise ill-equipped to handle.
Under the guidance of Crow, for example, the two boys slowly trap and kill a guppy in a pon; and deliberately fall out of the branches of trees — these physical, cruel acts the only means they have to express their new-found obsessions with danger and death. Crow is also a vaguely menacing companion and babysitter for the father, watching as he flounders through trying to deal with the mundane continuity of life (‘‘Moving on … is for stupid people,’’ he says, ‘‘because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project’’), as well as his loneliness and attempts to understand exactly what is it his children need.
Crow’s voice is allusive and often lyrical, riffing on words and sounds and rich in images. At times this is a little overdone (‘‘every evening, crack of dawn, all change, all meat this, all meat that, separate the reek … ooh, tarmac macadam”) but Crow speaks some of the most arresting lines in the book, comparing sugar-filled children with ‘‘blood-drunk fox clubs’’, or meeting the father’s more sentimental expressions of grief with ‘‘you sound like a fridge magnet’’.
Where Grief is the Thing with Feathers is most poignant is in the moments of humour that pepper its pages. For a book about grief, it is delightfully funny, mostly where it deals with the intimate idiosyncrasies of the family. At one point, one of the sons interrupts the father’s musing on art with ‘‘Wankarama Dad!’’ (‘‘We abused him and mocked him because it seemed to remind him of our Mum,’’ the boys state later). In another sequence, the father has lunch with his ‘‘scruffy’’ publisher, who keeps meeting his ideas for further, wilder books about Hughes and crows with suggestions such as: ‘‘How about a book on Basil Bunting?’’ The gentleness and indirection with which Porter charges this humour means that it matches the emotional texture of the rest of the book, and even heightens the pathos operating across it.
Less well integrated are the time shifts that occur towards the end of the novella. In the third section, Permission to Leave, the deliberately painstaking momentum of the narrative is suddenly ruptured, first by the father, who recounts bringing home a Plath scholar from a symposium one evening ‘‘about two years afterwards’’. In the next fragment the boys state, ‘‘We seem to take it in ten-year turns to be defined by it.’’ Porter suggests that these flashes into the future are occurring according to the often contradictory logic of grief, both ‘‘far too soon but perfectly timed’’, but the abruptness with which they are dropped into the narrative is jarring, especially because time and memory are so smoothly interwoven across the rest of the book.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a bold and ambitious book, formally challenging and wild in its experiments with narrative and voice. But Porter holds its disjunctions and digressions together with great skill, shaping a form that is perfectly suited to its subject matter, and the emotional valence of the text. The book is achingly poignant, often surprising, and always assured, and a beautiful portrait of grief, resilience and above all else, love.