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Oct 29

Book Review: Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Bottom Line

An experimental and extraordinary novel about loss, mourning and the stages of grief.  Read it.

Representative Paragraph

It’s a book that requires more than one representative quote:

The doorbell rang and I braced myself for more kindness. Another lasagne, some books, a cuddle, some little potted ready-meals for the boys. Of course, I was becoming expert in the behaviour of orbiting grievers. Being at the epicentre grants a curiously anthropological awareness of everybody else; the overwhelmeds, the affectedly lackadaisicals, the nothing so fars, the overstayers, the new best friends of hers, of mine, of the boys. The people I still have no fucking idea who they were. I felt like Earth in that extraordinary picture of the planet surrounded by a thick belt of space junk. I felt it would be years before the knotted-string dream of other people’s performances of woe for my dead wife would thin enough for me to see any black space again, and of course – needless to say – thoughts of this kind made me feel guilty. But, I thought, in support of myself, everything has changed, and she is gone and I can think what I like. She would approve, because we were always over-analytical, cynical, probably disloyal, puzzled. Dinner party post-mortem bitches with kind intentions. Hypocrites. Friends.

and

I refused to lose a wife and gain chores, so I accepted help. My brother was incredible, give me food, let me shout, with the boys, with the bank, with the post office, the school, the doctors and our folks. Her parents were kind, with the service, with the money, with their people, give me space, give me time, give me sense of her, let me apologise, let me find a path outside simple fury. Her friends, our families, with the news and the details, and her stuff, doing her proud, doing it right, teasing out a route and tailoring it to us, and not a cliché in sight.

and finally…

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.

Commentary

At 13,000 words it’s very hard to call Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers a novel.  But that’s the Goldsmith Prize for you, challenging the established view of what constitutes long form fiction.  And frankly Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is so damn good, so intense and true and shocking in its exploration of death, loss and mourning that questioning whether the work can be called a novel seems petty by comparison.

The book is set in London where two boys and their father are dealing with the sudden death of their mother / wife.  As they struggle to come to terms with their loss they are visited by Crow, a large black bird who acts as a conduit for their pain.  The book is a heady mix of prose poem, stream of consciousness and fairy-tale, with each very short chapter (the bulk are a single page) told through the perspective of either the boys, the father or the crow.

Grief, mourning and loss are themes you’ll find in any number of literary novels.  However, I’ve never seen them so front and centre as they are portrayed in this book.  It’s not just the intensity of the language, especially early on as the father drifts from his boys, unable to cope, totally reliant on the Crow.  It’s also in the way Porter walks us through the stages of mourning, how what seems impossible to understand becomes easier to parse; how the most horrible day of your life becomes a faded memory; how mythical aspects of death, the heightened melodrama, become ordinary and everyday.  Throughout it all there’s Crow until it’s not needed anymore.

A Grief Is The Thing with Feathers will not be everyone’s cup of tea.  The anarchic mix of styles (including the use of white space), the appearance of Crow – is it a metaphor for grief?  Is it something spiritual and mystical? – and the male-centric perspective will annoy and befuddle some readers.  Then there’s the subject matter and Porter’s unflinching approach that some, for good reason, will find genuinely upsetting.  But unlike a dull, ponderous book such as Lurid & Cute, Porter has married together the experimental and surreal with the powerful and dramatic.  This is a book that pushes against the established form and content of the novel but it is never anything but utterly engaging and emotionally resonant.

If this is a short review it’s not because I don’t have anything to say about this astonishing short novel, but because I’d rather you read the book then read this review.  Because, if there’s a nomination that typifies what the Goldsmith Award is about than Grief Is The Thing with Feathers would be top of the list.

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