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Life, death and everything in between: Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

My first read of 2017 was one that has been on my list for a few months. Grief is the Thing with Feathers is Max Porter’s first novel, which is why it seemed fitting to kick off the new year with. However, any preconceptions I’d had about it were scattered to the wind as soon as I began reading. This is a novel – more a novella, at 114 pages – that is slim but packs a hard punch, with its size belying its depth.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is like a modern fairy tale in its themes of love, loss and hope, but it certainly isn’t sugar-coated in its emotion. The novel begins with Dad (the characters do not have names, rather wear their familial roles as a badge of an identity they are trying hard to maintain) describing life as it has been since the death of his wife. He is left alone, in the flat he once shared with her, to care for their two sons (known simply as Boys; their identities intermingled in a mass of action and emotion). From the outset it’s easy to see that he is struggling to hold it together. Then one day, there is a knock at the door, a flurry of midnight-coloured wings, and Crow arrives to provide a slapdash combination of support, guidance and criticism. Crow is not asked for, and not entirely welcomed at first, but its presence soon becomes a peculiar comfort, particularly for Dad. Like a twisted version of the fairy godmother in our childhood stories, Crow swoops to fill a gap in the family unit and will not leave until it’s no longer needed; until they have fully embraced the emotions they are afraid to acknowledge.

Crow’s identity can be understood from a closer look at the many ideas thrown about in the novel. Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar, writing his own book about the poet and his troubled life, so there are links to Hughes’ selection of crow poetry (an abstract, mythological series of poems). For me, Crow is a physical manifestation of the grief the family are trying to come to terms with; he is brutal in his attempts to rouse Dad from his moments of melancholy, and Porter uses imagery of decay, bloody destruction and terrifying darkness to portray the visceral physicality of grief. But the novel is also incredibly lyrical, with Porter’s language carrying the reader on an emotional journey that we will all inevitably experience at some point in our lives – that of mourning and recovery. In this way, the novel is fiction only to an extent; the novel’s blurb describes it as ‘an essay on grief’, written subconsciously by Dad as he channels his emotion into his own piece of writing, creating something useful out of his loss. He admits that ‘grief is a long-term project’, while Crow describes grief as ‘beautifully chaotic’.

This chaos is reflected in the structure of the novel. It flashes between the past and present, the points of view of Dad, Boys and Crow; sometimes poetic, sometimes raw and angry. Grief is not a linear emotion; it is a process of moving out of the darkness and towards the light, pulling yourself from the depths of despair and starting to feel again, and Porter tracks this journey in an honest and relatable style. His language is both stark and beautiful, similar to poet Emily Dickinson’s musings on life and death. The novel takes its name from one of her poems, Hope is the Thing with Feathers, an objective reflection on the beauty and positivity than can be found even in the bleakest of situations.

In her review in The Guardian (Sept. 2015), Kirsty Gunn described Grief is the Thing with Feathers as ‘a profound meditation of love and loss’. I agree with this idea – Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an emotionally punishing but wholly rewarding read. It leaves the reader gasping for breath in parts, laughing in others; left silenced and hopeful by the powerful simplicity of the language and the message. There’s power between these pages – I urge you to read it and immerse yourself in Porter’s exquisite writing.

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