Part novella, part essay Max Porter’s debut novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a puzzling, sometimes infuriating, often stunning and overall devastating text that, like the best writing, gives the reader an experience that couldn’t be possible.
A story follows a father coming to terms with the death of his wife as well as how he two sons cope with the situation. Although this sounds like a depressing set up (which it is) and something that has been dealt with before, Max Porter’s unique voice gives us a novel packed full of ideas and explorations of language that offers to the reader a fresh take on the concept of grief. One such idea is the character of The Crow, an impish yet caring creature that looks after the boys and the father following the wife’s death.
Porter’s commitment to the personification of grief here is especially commendable, and the character of the crow is ambiguous, hard to understand, his motives are difficult to decipher, and his purpose and when he will leave the family are a constant battle for the sons to understand. Much like grief itself, the crow is thrust onto the family and it is they that must understand it before it can help them.
If this review is starting to sound a bit like an essay then you may be getting some sense of what reading Grief is The Thing with Feathers can feel like. It doesn’t read like an essay in the sense of its language or its writing style, more in that you get an impression of it trying to tell you something, educate you on a particular experience. There is no narrative thread to Porter’s text, it instead is an emotional journey, one that is not just sad but is also funny. And it is these moments of humour that make the emotive moments even more devastating.
However, although the text as a whole lacks any narrative thrust I think that one of Porter’s greatest strengths, ironically perhaps, is his storytelling. The few short stories that crop up in the book are each emotionally satisfying, whether they are real to the characters or merely fantasies. The final of these brings with it the films climax and the closing pages are a joyous conclusion.
Although published last year in hardback, the novel has just been reprinted in paperback and, as a relatively short read, at just over 100 pages, I would recommend it to anyone interested in either its subject matter or in how fiction can convey ideas and abstract emotion in a way that feels both accessible and, in a way, satisfyingly unknowable. The best way to understand grief in Grief is The Thing with Feathers is to see how it cannot always BE understood. And for a debut writer this is a fantastic achievement.
– By Jamie Hutton, Culture Editor