I’m never one to turn down a cheap deal on an audiobook. Especially one that I can finish in under 2 hours. It always helps to have a few super short books on hand just in case I need to get a review out in time. I’m not doing awfully well with my current book so I definitely needed something to fill this post. Thankfully, Audible had me covered with their half-price sale. I bought a few bargains and pre-ordered Adam Buxton’s upcoming book. I never really count audiobooks in my book buying ban but I probably should. I never buy them at full price but I guess it should be included in my book haul. But that’s beside the point right now. I listened to this book before I went to bed yesterday. I kind of regretted it because it’s never a good idea to come face-to-face with mortality just before you turn the light out. Still, I’d wanted to read it for a long time and being able to do so while lying back and doing nothing was even better.
It’s strange listening to this book without a physical copy as a reference. It’s not a bad thing but it does feel like you’re missing out on something by actually seeing the words. Just as the Ted Hughes collection Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow that inspired it, Grief is the Thing With Feathers is a conceptual novella. It is something of a hybrid of prose and poetry. This is a strange and unusual novella that resists being categorised. It tells the story of a house in mourning and the things they cling to so they can survive. Max Porter’s debut feels alive and as though the words are trying to get out. If I’d read a physical copy of the book, I imagine they’d have tried to leap off the page and take flight. It feels both delicate and strong at the same time.
After the sudden death of his wife, a writer and father of two is left feeling lost and alone. He is a Ted Hughes scholar who is currently writing a book about Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. One night, the family are visited by a crow who promises not to leave them until they are ready. The crow feels sorry for the family but he is still a black-hearted trickster. He isn’t sympathetic but he brings the family together when they need it. The crow pushes them to move forward with their lives. It is because of the crow’s presence that the father can finish writing his book.
The tale is just like a fairytale. It’s all make-believe and metaphors. The crow appears as a way for the father to live out his anger and sadness after the death of his wife. To indulge the wave of emotions that hits him without ever fully giving into them. Its lack of language gives way to his creativity. This allows him to still function as a father and writer. And the crow is good for the boys too. It gives them a way to confront their own feelings and it protects them. Max Porter has filled the novel with plenty of literary references. Classic fairy tales, mythology, and folk tales are all visible within the narrative and Porter can weave the strands together beautifully and poetically.
The novella jumps between the perspective of the father, the crow, and the boys. We get snippets of daily life and memories are thrown together. Each of the different characters has their own voice and style. There is darkness and anger within them all. Yet there is also life and emotion. The novella does a good job of describing how grief can take over a household and sink into the foundations. This is a small read and it flies forwards at quite a pace. You move between the three narrators at speed and you don’t always have time to settle in before you move on. Yet, there is also something weighing it all down. It’s that sensation that comes with grief that sees your world stand still while the passage of time still goes on quickly. You’ll get to the end of this book and feel like you’ve gone through so much but, at the same tie, gone through nothing at all.
Grief is the Thing With Feathers might not be the most comprehensive rumination on grief that you’ll ever read but it does a great job of recreating the sensations around it. It breathes life into the lifeless and brings humour to the darkness. It isn’t afraid to get nasty and self-indulgent but it also shows the beauty and hope that exists in the world. The chapters from the perspective of the boys show that there is something of the mother left to grow. It is a messy and strange novel that takes a lot out of you, which seems perfect for the subject matter. But this is so much more than a story about grief. This is an exploration of writing and how to write about life and death. It is a book that has the feel of a collection of poetry but is pure novel. Max Porter shows us how possible it is to write about such difficult subjects in a way that feels fresh and free. That doesn’t weigh you down with the solemnity of grief. It’s a spectacular thing.