Review: Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2015)
This review was first written as a university assignment in May 2019.
In her poem “Acquainted with Grief,” Helen Hunt Jackson asks: “Dost know Grief well?” This is a question of importance, for it aptly translates the need for grief, like all human emotions, to be acquainted with in order to be fully understood. In an attempt to explain this, she resorts to assigning her grief personhood, and Max Porter does something similar in his exploration of the human experience of loss within Grief is the Thing with Feathers.
References to poetry in talking of Porter’s debut novella are not unfounded, for his work itself is so heavily laden with poetic tribute and lyrical prose. A play on Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an unconventional narrative recalling the journey through bereavement of a family recently met by death. While two young sons try to comprehend the loss of their mother, a husband mourns his wife as he struggles to face a drastically altered reality. As the three attempt to adjust to their new life, they are joined by a foreign entity who oversees them through the process: Crow. This Crow is a direct apparition of the “Crow” envisioned by Ted Hughes in his poetry collection penned in response to Sylvia Plath’s death, but it takes on its own identity within the story Porter is telling.
The novella is divided into three sections — “A lick of night,” “Defence of the nest,” and “Permission to leave” — and is narrated by three distinct speakers: Boys, Dad, and Crow. The divide within the story is likened to a triptych by the author and justifiably so, for all three voices are dependent upon each other to allow the possibility of a disjointed yet inarguably unified narrative. While both Boys are lumped within a single voice, which could belong to either one of them at any given time, Dad and Crow occupy distinct spaces for articulation. However, with one of the three more than often talking about the others, the boundaries of narration remain murky, and the narrative only remains buoyant through the hinging of one voice with another. This is evident through the lack of distinct chapters within the novella, with one brief narration often followed by another in quick succession.
The story opens with the Boys, with a rather ominous declaration: “There’s a feather on my pillow.” This sets in motion the metaphor that is to stay with the characters through the entirety of the novel, with bird imagery scattered across all narrations. This is to signify the presence of the Crow, even in places where he is a physically absent. The Crow, of course, may be read as an embodiment of grief itself, or the experience associated with it. Dad’s narrative quickly picks up, and his first utterance encapsulates the mood that is to stay prominent throughout emotional journey: “Four or five days after she died, I sat alone in the living room wondering what to do.” The stillness contained within these lines is one that looms over the novella itself, and the hollow solitude exclusive only to a brush with death is also evident within the characters’ monologues. Since the first-person narrative is structured in a memoir-like manner, there is no dearth of intimacy between the reader and the characters. It is this lack of a buffer that allows the reader an immersive experience of discomfort; lines between humour and tragedy continuosly blur, and allow the reality of grief to seep into language itself.
While the Crow is central to the story, he is secondary to the humans who seem to have conjured him up to give voice to their trauma. The human narratives remain splintered with routine observations tied in with an ever-present acknowledgment of sorrow, and the permanence of death finds itself expressed in constant reminders of it. This is explicit within Dad’s voice, whose struggle is more pronounced in its direct and jarring expressions. “I will stop finding her hairs,” he says. “I will stop hearing her breathing.” For the Boys, the trauma is manifest indirectly, within narrations of disturbing, violent dreams that often veer towards ridiculous.
The need within the characters to grasp at outlandish explanations to sorrow is best exemplified in the Crow itself. Taking up existence by virtue of Dad’s scholarly obsession with Ted Hughes, Crow enters the life of the characters unquestioned, and looms as a presence both wise and mischievous. Crow’s characterization is evident within his dual portrayal of self: at times, he offers sombre observations on the human condition, and other times he descends into spirals of chaotic narrative interspersed with meaningless words and phrases, often accentuated by cackles and bird noises. These expressions find themselves translated on paper in the entirely of their absurdity, yet are not devoid of meaning; they give voice to trauma that cannot be confined within the limits of organized language.
The Crow, called the “antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter,” finds himself a home within the characters’ house, but also within the story. In a novella that itself does not hold a plot beyond the non-linear experience of grief and its various manifestations, the Crow acts as a pivot who absorbs and redirects the madness of trauma in a manner that is digestible by virtue of its foreignness. His departure from the narrative, towards the end, is what marks a moment of catharsis where the characters are deemed capable of dealing with their grief. It is significant to note that grief is recognized as a constant presence to be made amends with, while the Crow remains a means to reach a point of settlement.
A remarkable aspect of the story-telling within the novella is that the immensity of emotions brought about by an absence — that of the mother — is articulated without necessarily invoking the event of death. The mother and the wife remains alive in the recollections of her; she is constructed through a weaving of memories and “mis-rememberings,” but she does not take centre-stage in a narrative that is solely owned by the aggrieved, and not the deceased. However, the conflation between her absence and her presence within the text is what makes for excellent narrative, for it establishes parallels between death and grieving as they are experienced in real life.
Within this novella, the reader is invited into an experience that does not censor itself, but only manifests itself in a narrative so unfamiliar that it demands to be accounted for. Grief is, ultimately, understood only within the paradox of its inexplicability; it manages to translate itself into language only through the abandonment of reason and the reckless embrace of absurdity. For the well acquainted, the familiar will be found even within a heap of feathers.