Po­etic crow per­me­ates saga of loss

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Fiona Wright Fiona Wright’s new book is Small Acts of Dis­ap­pear­ance: Es­says on Hunger.

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.

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