Max Porter’s slim volume is anything but small. Its tightly-controlled narrative about grief and how it affects everyone and everything—the self, relationships, the subconscious, the air around us—is as true as the experience of grief itself.
The title, of course pulled from an Emily Dickinson poem, is rewritten in the novel’s epigraph, and it is enough sets the tone for the novel as much with the addition of “Crow” as it does with the words it replaces: Love, Love, freight, groove.
At first, it seems nonsensical, but then again, so does grief, when it falls with the force of freight and creates a groove where our love still lives. It’s literally impossible to make sense of grief or the feelings immediately following a loss. Why not, then, pour all of those feelings, make the “friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter” into the persona of a Crow?
The book is divided into three parts and told from three (or four, technically) perspectives: Crow, Dad, and Boys (we never know which one narrates at any given time). Superficially, it seems as though the perspectives are clear: the dad and boys lost their wife and mother respectively, and the crow is the manifestation of the father’s grief in the house. However, you could, if you wanted to, take it to a different level, and posit that the boy, dad, and crow are all manifestations of the same person, and show how each aspect of the father (id, ego, superego) responds to losing the woman he loves.
Regardless of how you interpret the three narrators, one fact remains: Porter nails grief on the head in this slim volume, and he does it many times over.
“Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.”
“It is everything. It is the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic. It shares mathematical characteristics with many natural forms.”
Just as Crow is afraid of “Plot,” so grief does not follow one. Though Porter’s novel follows a somewhat linear path (as indicated by the titles of the parts and the events of the narrative), it also “defines” the concept of grief as complicated, convoluted, nebulous, and non-linear. Dad clearly misses his wife, and the Boys do things like piss on the toilet seat “to miss her, to keep wanting her,” but the definition of grief in the book never coalesces into a singular thing, just as grief in life does not. There are too many moving parts to grief, so many sharp pangs of memory that, out of nowhere, take our breath away, and each person lives those parts in different ways.
However, in this paradoxically small volume, Porter has done it. Living, and grieving, will always be “Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything.”
Here he is, husband and father, scruffy romantic, a shambolic scholar–a man adrift in the wake of his wife’s sudden, accidental death. And there are his two sons who like him struggle in their London apartment to face the unbearable sadness that has engulfed them. The father imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness, while the boys wander, savage and unsupervised.
In this moment of violent despair they are visited by Crow–antagonist, trickster, goad, protector, therapist, and babysitter. This self-described “sentimental bird,” at once wild and tender, who “finds humans dull except in grief,” threatens to stay with the wounded family until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and the pain of loss lessens with the balm of memories, Crow’s efforts are rewarded and the little unit of three begins to recover: Dad resumes his book about the poet Ted Hughes; the boys get on with it, grow up.
Part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief, Max Porter’s extraordinary debut combines compassion and bravura style to dazzling effect. Full of angular wit and profound truths, “Grief Is the Thing with Feathers” is a startlingly original and haunting debut by a significant new talent.