The trickster as healer: Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

This review was originally published by Electric Literature.


Ted Hughes: distinguished poet, former Poet Laureate of Great Britain, widower of two wives lost to suicide, the first of whom was American poet Sylvia Plath. What more could possibly be written about Hughes and his oeuvre that hasn’t already been discussed by innumerable critical essays, biographies and feminist polemic?

The existing volume of published criticism is no deterrent for Hughes scholars, such as the father character in Max Porter’s debut novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, the character, who is only referred to as “Dad,” spends much of the novel preoccupied by Hughes and his poetry.

Of particular interest to the father is the 1970 collection, Crow, Hughes’ best-known work after Birthday Letters. In the collection, Hughes draws upon numerous world mythologies and constructs the eponymous character, Crow, as a trickster. Explaining the character’s genesis in a  , Hughes said: “As the protagonist of a book, a crow would become symbolic in any author’s hands. And a symbolic crow lives a legendary life. That is how Crow took off.”

In Porter’s hands, the character Crow does become symbolic. Grief is the Thing with Feathers reimagines Hughes’ bird not only as a trickster, but also as a babysitter and healer. Crow first visits the father and his twin sons in the aftermath of loss. Dad and the Boys, as they are known, are mourning for their wife and mother who died suddenly from a head injury. In an early exchange, Crow reminds the father that he is “Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill…The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.” As a character, Crow challenges the conventions of realism. Is he merely a figment of the father’s Hughes-saturated imagination, or necessarily real by the virtue of the benefits he confers on the grieving family?

Max Porter is likely far better known than most debut novelists. He works at Granta, and notably was the editor of Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries. Grief is the Thing with Feathers, a slim book whose categorization lies somewhere between novella and verse novel, is rendered in spare, economical prose and seems like the stylistic antithesis to Catton’s 848-page novel.

And yet, Porter’s debut has meatiness to it—a denseness of allegory and allusion; a mélange of fairy tale, fable and dream. The novel takes its title from the Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”, and the book’s epigraph is also taken from a Dickinson poem, “That Love is all there is”—both nod to the book’s examination of love, loss and grief. Porter’s debut abounds in delightful allusions to literature, music and mythology. The father character is well-read and turns to art as a means of alleviating his grief: “Many people said ‘You need time’, when what I needed was Shakespeare, Ibn ’Arabi, Shostakovich, Howlin’ Wolf.” Being “chewed apart by sadness,” he likens himself and his twins to the Trojan priest Laocoön his two sons, who according to Greek mythology were attacked by giant serpents.

The novel cycles between three perspectives—Dad, Boys, and Crow—and many begin with the familiar “Once upon a time” trope. One such story, which turns out to be a bad dream of Crow’s, is reminiscent of the witch’s fate at the hands of Hansel and Gretel: “And the boys cooked Crow in a very hot oven until he was nothing but cells.” Allusions range from Irish mythology (“I remember a story about an Irish warrior who killed his son by mistake”—referring to Cú Chulainnk, who takes his son Connla for an intruder and kills him) to contemporary literature (“I remember a story about a Japanese writer who fell on his own sword…’—referring to Yukio Mishima, a Nobel Prize nominee who committed ritual suicide by seppuku after a failed coup). The novel’s references are broad and eclectic; Porter himself is clearly an erudite man, and the result is a book that yields more with each subsequent rereading.

Contrary to the book’s title, Crow—a thing with feathers—is a vehicle to overcoming grief, rather than a representation of grief itself. The family’s sadness is rendered exquisitely, both in figurative and prosaic language. Take the following passage as an example of the former: “…the whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief.” And as for a devastating instance of the latter:

“She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.”

At times, the writing verges on the surreal: the father imagines his dead wife’s ‘ribs splayed stretched like a xylophone with the dead birds playing tunes on her bones’, which echoes some of Hughes’ more macabre poetry: “…he drowned in his own blood / Dragged under by the weight of his guts” (from “A Kill”).

Amid the grief and mortality, however, Porter interweaves humor and self-conscious irreverence, of which Crow is generally the source. “Eugh,” says Crow at one point of the father’s sentimentality, “you sound like a fridge magnet.” Describing his own actions, Crow narrates: “Look up. ‘LOUD, HARD AND INDIGNANT KRAAH NOTES’ (Collins Guide to Birds, p. 45).” With a metanarrative flourish, in one section he records:

“Notes towards my voice-driven literary memoir, if I may:

I loved waiting, mid-afternoon, alone in their home for them to come back from school. I acknowledge that I could have been accused of showing symptoms related to unfulfilled maternal fantasies, but I am a crow and we can do many things in the dark, even play at Mommy. I just pecked about, looking at this, looking at that. Lifting up the occasional sock or jigsaw piece. I used to do little squitty shits in places I knew he’d never clean.”

As tired as the term may be, “postmodern” is the perfect descriptor for Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Unreliable narration obscures the distinction between reality and imagination, and metafictional awareness binds the book. One of Crow’s fairy tales ends with SAT-style “Comprehension Questions” such as, “If the boots are a metaphor for the ability to cope with grief, who do you think has died?” At one point, the father notes, commenting upon the nature of his own relationship with Crow: “I am…trying to entertain the notion of Crow a bit less since I read a book about psychotic delusions.” And even more strikingly self-consciousness, Crow discusses himself as a narrative trope:

“In other versions I am a doctor or a 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.”

Layered with pathos, allusion, and humor, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is more than the sum of its composite elements. Pithy yet rich, the novel is a moving and astounding debut. Porter’s Crow is as vivid as Hughes’ original, and his writing no less memorable.

By Donna Lu

Donna Lu is a writer and journalist.

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