Grief is the Thing with Feathers

grief-is-the-thing-with-feathersA man and his two sons are grieving the loss of his wife (and their mother) when a crow turns up, promising to stay until he wasn’t needed anymore. The crow observes the family, and the family tries to come to grips with their new reality. This little book by Max Porter tells their story through poems and vignettes that capture the thoughts, dreams, and observation of the dad, the boys, and the crow.

Here’s how the crow explains himself:

In other versions I am a doctor or ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.

In this case, he’s probably a crow because the dad is a Ted Hughes scholar, and Hughes authored a poetry collection called Crow. I haven’t read that collection (in fact, I haven’t read much Hughes at all), and I kind of wish that I had because I wasn’t sure what to make of a crow’s presence in this book. Is he meant to be simply a sign that things are not normal, that the family is living a disrupted life? Is his leaving a sign that they’ve settled in to that new reality?

Grief, the title tells us, is the “thing with feathers”—an Emily Dickinson reference, though her feathered thing is hope. If we take the title at its word, the crow is grief itself. But a grief mixed with hope perhaps? The arrival of the crow breaks the dad out of a sort of daze, and he seems glad about that. Maybe the crow represents a sort of forward motion, going through the work of living on.

The boys are also aware of the crow as they work out their grief together and apart. They always appear together in the book, although it’s clear they have two different personalities. Some of the book’s best, most moving moments involve the boys. They tell lies to themselves and others about what happened to their mother. They make messes around the house so they’ll have a reason to miss her.

There are lots of arresting moments in this book, but I found it hard to connect with as a whole. It seemed to be trying so hard to be profound. It’s so meticulously put together that it never stopped feeling constructed—the effect was that of an exercise than a raw outpouring of grief. This book is part of the Tournament of Books this March, so I’ll be interested to see if others felt the same.

Most of the reviews I’ve seen have been strongly positive. Although this seemed like the kind of book I could like, I just never quite sunk into the concept of it. I’m wondering if my tendency these days to prefer straightforward storytelling was getting in my way here. It’s possible, although I hope this tendency passes because when I enjoy books like this, I tend to enjoy them very much, and I like to enjoy books! And many people have enjoyed this, and I could appreciate parts of it. But it wasn’t quite the book for me right now.

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11 Responses to Grief is the Thing with Feathers

  1. Jeanne says:

    I know in the Hughes poems the crow is a trickster figure–maybe part of the point of this book (which I haven’t read) is that grief keeps shifting around and turning into other emotions without identifiable cause?

  2. Stefanie says:

    I enjoyed the book but had not read the Crow poems before or much Hughes either. I did read a few of the Crow poems afterwards though. Even though I liked the book it is a hard one to love because I got some of that “constructed” vibe too which for me interfered a bit with the emotional impact of the story.

    • Teresa says:

      I might look into the Crow poems at some point. I think I wanted something more raw and vigorous, and I went into it really expecting that. But this was so meticulous that it never felt fully real.

  3. Elle says:

    I’m glad you were honest about how you felt about this one; I always like it when bloggers do that, especially about hyped books! I read this last year when it came out in the UK and was really impressed with it; bits of it moved me in a way that no writing about grief ever has. It is very much a constructed book, and can be hard to grab hold of, so I can see your issues too! (For me, they didn’t matter, but partly I think my reaction was very personal.)

    • Teresa says:

      I did really like the parts with the two sons. It seemed like there were some good insights there, expressed in an original way.

      • Elle says:

        I have a memory of a section that involves the mother’s hairbrush, a paperback and a jar of peanut butter, that just kicked me in the stomach. (Also, got White Rage in the post! Thank you!!)

  4. amckiereads says:

    What a strange sounding book. I don’t know how it got on my wish list, but I really didn’t know anything about the story. I’m not sure I will enjoy it, but will still give it a chance when it comes in from the library…

  5. JaneGS says:

    I’ve been debating reading this for the Tournament of Books–like you, I feel like this is the kind of book I would like, but after reading your review, I’m not so sure. I resonate with liking more straightforward storytelling these days. Good review.

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