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Max Porter: Grief is the Thing With Feathers

Grief can take many forms and a somewhat familiar if threatening giant crow is as good as any. The crow image, of course, comes from Ted Hughes, who wrote his famous Crow: from the Life and Songs of the Crow after the death of Sylvia Plath. The title comes from Emily Dickinson, though for her it was hope, not grief.

As the above shows this is a poetical novel. The story is told from three points of view. Dad – we do not learn his name – is grieving, as his wife has just died. He is naturally in a state of shock. He does not know what to do. He drank. He smoked. More importantly, he realised that his life had dramatically changed. I would permanently become this organiser, this list-making trader in clichés of gratitude, machine-like architect of routines for small children with no Mum. People had been round to bring consolation and dishes of lasagne. Some of them, he had no idea who they were. But now they had gone back to their own lives. But the door rang again. It wasn’t a lasagne or a cuddle. It was feathers. Feathers and one shiny jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket, bulging out from a football-sized testicle. It was the crow. It was grief.

Grief hits us in many ways. In some cases, it can be delayed. In others it comes right away. However, for Dad, here it was, four or five days later when everyone except his two small boys had gone back home. I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more, the crow told him and that is certainly the case. Grief can last a long time, a very long time. The crow wanted him to say Hello. Eventually and reluctantly, he did. Hello Crow, I said. Good to finally meet you. And that night he slept properly for the first time since her death.

The second point of view is Crow’s. I do eat baby rabbits, plunder nests, swallow filth, cheat death, mock the starving homeless, misdirect, misinform, he tells us. But I care, deeply. I find humans dull except in grief. Motherless children are what he prefers and here he has two, as the third point of view is theirs. The two sons speak with one voice (and say so at the end of the novel). They talk more of the reaction of their father than their own, though they do talk about their own lives. There was very little division between their imaginary and real worlds, and people talked of coping mechanisms and normal childhood and time. They are well aware of the crow, even though it is, as they say later, imaginary.

Dad is writing a book on Hughes: Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis and we follow his efforts to get this book written and published. Indeed, publication is when crow leaves. Later on in the book, we learn that he met Hughes in his younger days and the story of how this happened is, apparently, one the boys are very familiar with.

We follow the three lives (four, if you count crow, who tells us briefly of his own personal life and the loss of his wife) right up to the adulthood of the boys and their own efforts at fatherhood. They do seem sympathetic to their own father’s parenting and speak favourably about him. He has a few girlfriends but never remarries.

Porter’s technique is to use fables, stories and the like to illustrate the book. Many of the stories illustrate father-son relationships and death of a loved one, which is a clever and well-done way of showing up these issues. It is very cleverly done and certainly an imaginative and original work.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Faber & Faber