Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter


I’ve been thinking a lot about this book since reading it last year, just trying to get straight in my head how I felt about it. I’m not sure I’m any clearer now than I was then!

The novella is set in London with a father and his two sons who are trying to find a way to navigate through the overwhelming grief they feel after the loss of their wife and mother.  A simple concept for a novel and one used many times before. Grief is the Thing with Feathers is far from straightforward though, it’s gloriously complex, with three narrators, the boys, their father and the crow and it does not follow the typical conventions of a traditional novel.  No chapters to speak of, but short segments of almost chaotic, yet poetic writing. It’s fragmentary structure, possibly symbolizing the often chaotic nature of grief?  It’s a novel that sets out to challenge the reader and push the boundaries of what we think of as the formal structure, of how a story is set out.

The father is a Ted Hughes scholar and the crow is from Hughes set of poems, ‘The Life and Songs of Crow’ and the title of the book is taken from the Emily Dickenson poem ‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers.

When I began my challenge to read Waterstone’s monthly recommended fiction read I wanted to push myself and this book certainly did that. I have enjoyed each in a different way and have been able to marshal my thoughts about why I liked them, or why they did not work for me!  Yet I’m struggling to do that with this book.  It was certainly challenging and it offers a unique insight into grief and loss.

The boys in the book are young when their mother dies; I was 18 when my father died! My memory of grief is a more distant thing than for them.  I remember crippling loss and an odd sense of detachment from the world around me, while Porter describes it as chaotic, angry and fragmentary.  He captures how grief leaves you feeling like your looking at the world around you from inside a bubble of crippling emotion, but I’m not sure that for me, he captures the oddness of it, the intense pain that actually comes from the loss of a parent.  He spends so much time on the language of grief, the imagery, that he misses out on the raw crippling disability of sorrow.

From my reading he uses the crow as a physical representation of grief. The crow is a baby sitter, a therapist and a means of healing. He captures the moments around the family when they are surrounded by caring relatives, who start to drift away when the initial loss has passed and his description of them is perfection.  Yet the family remains stricken and this is when the crow arrives, to fill the void left by the “orbiting grievers”.  He becomes for them an embodiment of their grief and a voice to their loss.

I felt challenged and empowered by the language of the novel, but did it work for me? That is the question I can not answer with any certainty! I enjoyed it, but felt that by the end I had more questions than answers. Maybe that is the point, Porter wanted to make his readers look at what grief meant to them? It’s certainly a very fine piece of literature, one everyone should read.  But I think for me, in being so clever in the form of how it was written, the cleverness and obvious skilful use of language, it lost emotional clout.  I expected a much more emotional reaction to the book akin to the shocking grief I felt when I lost my father. I spent so much time on the written word, its beauty, that I failed to make a real and tangible emotional connection to the family’s loss.

Maybe I should read it again, because I’m still hoping to gain a better understanding of why I was left feeling so disquieted by this rather eloquent study of loss and grief.

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