It’s perhaps a cliché to describe a book as unlike anything you’ve ever read; it suggests a laziness on the part of the reviewer. But in the example of Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers I’m genuinely struggling to find an adequate point of comparison through which to describe it. Part prose and part poetry, this text tells the simple story of a family after the matriarch dies. This incident is explored through three first person perspectives: the ‘Dad’ who lost his wife; the ‘Boys’ who lost their mother; and a giant ‘Crow’ who has come to help them mourn.
This is a very challenging text. The literary style changes drastically from paragraph to paragraph; highly structured poetry often breaks into free form, stream of consciousness prose. This syncopation works to unnerve the reader through an explicit refusal to let them settle into a beat. On a textual level, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers pushes you to a place of discomfort where you may be more receptive to its ideas. Even the narrative voices are so distinct that they become abrasive and harsh when placed in such close proximity. ‘Dad’ is a Ted Hughes scholar, always trying to romanticise his loss into something grander. There’s ‘Crow’ – the voice of both reason and unrestrained nightmare, told through the broken English of a wild bird. Perhaps the hardest to come to terms with are the ‘Boys’. The text speaks of them as two separate individuals but in their narration they disassociate from their personal identities into a singular narrative voice; the way the other narrators describe them as distinct individuals is at odds with their indistinct voice.
What’s particularly striking about Grief Is The Thing With Feather’s deliberate discomfort is how it uses it for emotional weight. Obviously this is an incredibly sad text. It’s an intimate exploration of loss and death through three voices as they go through the mourning process. Porter deliberately sets his readership off-kilter as a reflection on the severe emotional hardship that is losing a loved one. Yet the great strength of the text, in my opinion, is that it manages to find the humour in death. Not in a morbid way, it makes no case for death being pleasurable, but in a realistic way. It’s human nature to resolve your grief through the black comedy of the situation. To this end, perhaps the discomfort that Porter fashions could perhaps be better explained as a feeling of the uncanny? This text earnestly approaches the power of death whilst at the same time focusing on our perverse ability to laugh in the face of it.
Another quality of this text is it’s openly very knowing about it’s place in the canon of English Literature; the title is a warped Emily Dickinson quote after all. The idea of using a carrion bird as the metaphor for death and loss is nothing new. Porter acknowledges this by making his Crow a softer figure than Poe’s Raven; it still represents death and famine, but it’s a more motherly image. I also particularly enjoyed the frequent references to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Their doomed relationship is used as an irony to undercut the ‘Dad’ narrative. It has become nigh-impossible for scholars to separate the work of Plath and Hughes from their relationship from one another – no matter what authorial intent goes into their poetry, the readership creates a meaning relating to the other. In other words, the meaning of the relationship is created at an external level. But the ‘Dad’ voice attempts to construct a relationship to his dead wife through his writing. Therefore could it not represent, especially when compared to Hughes/Plath, an attempt to reclaim love and meaning in the realm of the subjective or internal? I’m not necessarily saying you have to had studied English Lit to enjoy Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, but it’s definitely a text that reveals more about itself if you approach with some prior knowledge.
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is a wonderful, strange and unforgettable little story. It’s a comforting take of mourning that also challenges the reader; it’s very much a book that rewards the you for putting in a little effort. I’m going to go out on a limb and declare this is my favourite book of 2016 thus far.