Emily Wellings comments
“I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.”
Considering its prevalence, depth and personal nature, it is unsurprising that grief can be a particularly complex topic to portray successfully in literature. Its bold, brave choice of form and language is what makes Max Porter’s take on grief such a delightful breath of fresh air for this familiar literary subject.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers tells of the sudden death of a beloved mother and wife, and of how her husband and young sons cope in the wake of her loss. The family are at their most lost when they are visited by the character of the Crow; in the style of Nanny McPhee, the Crow comes to stay with the family and consume their grief until he is no longer required. Through the bewildered and lost eyes of Dad, the singular and innocent voice of the Boys, and the chaotic and changeable narrative of the Crow, Porter presents a short, bizarre tale of loss, life and love.
Perhaps the book’s most striking feature is its lack of plot. Rather than creating a story through a series of strict, discernible plot points, Porter leads the book through descriptions of pure emotion and heart-wrenching memories with the occasional intervention from plot – such as the cringeworthy sex between Dad and the Plath scholar, or the devastatingly beautiful moment at which the Boys and Dad scatter their mother’s ashes. The emotions portrayed by Porter are so unmistakably human that it is almost impossible not to be utterly immersed in them. The realism of Porter’s narrative – particularly when portraying Dad and the Boys – is mesmerising and so genuine that it renders the voices of these characters truly unforgettable.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a book which simultaneously resists and encourages interpretation. Its structure is erratic and jarring, its form defies categorisation, and its language is so often crude and yet so often incredibly touching. Despite such bizarre characteristics, it is difficult to describe the book as anything other than truly moving due to the magnificent authenticity of Porter’s portrayal of human emotion. The unpredictability of its structure is reminiscent of the flight of a bird itself, and this is just one example of Porter’s intelligence in his construction of the narrative. The form of the book is also fascinating; it is a delightful combination of prose and blank verse, and through this Porter manages to present a narrative which is both heart-wrenchingly sad and charmingly amusing. This duality is continued through the language Porter uses, which is sometimes repellent and sometimes overwhelmingly beautiful. The speech of Dad is particularly diverse, with his statement “my piss warmed the cradle of his wing” providing an especially distasteful moment. However, his speech is also often the most gorgeous – particularly at the end of the book, where he states that “[the boys’] voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything.” Through the character of Dad, Porter’s presentation of the dual nature of grief is perhaps its most potent; via Dad’s confused speech, Porter demonstrates the jarring nature of grief, and yet simultaneously the beauty of grief as the realisation of one of the most powerful forms of human love.
As a debut novel, this is both a fascinating choice and a stunning achievement; Porter’s writing is daring and bizarre, but is above all utterly enchanting. The dazzling accuracy of his illustration of the fundamental human emotion of grief is truly unique; bizarre, amusing and tender, it is a piece of literature which will be difficult for its readers to forget.