It’s almost impossible to reach the end of our lives without being scarred by grief of one kind or another. Yet, it’s probably the hardest of our human states to write prose about without being unbearable to read. For me, Grief is the Thing with Feathers manages to capture the precarious nature of grief in its fine balance of prose, memoir and poetry. Nothing else I’ve ever read comes close to it.
I am not the first person to feel strongly about this slim book about a father and his two sons who are coming to terms with the death of their mother. Grief is the Thing with Feathers is just over 100 pages long and I read it in a single afternoon in 2015, the year it was published, when it garnered many prizes and a general clamour of acclaim for it’s sheer originality. It was Max Porter’s first book (he still works in publishing) and it propelled him into the literary scene as author. A role that he seemed quite reticent about in initial interviews, as he felt that he wasn’t a classic prose writer, but neither was he a poet. He gathers ideas, fairy tales, poetry and images; he sketches as well as writes. As a young man, he was obsessed with Ted Hughes and the Crow in the book is a paean to the poet. The book itself is a collection of scraps and pictures of writing, so simply and exquisitely observed that it has to be read slowly. It made me laugh and made me cry.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers is written in three acts, from three perspectives: the boys whose mother died, the father – “I miss my wife” – and a giant crow who arrives four or five days after her death. They are piecemeal and dream-like, they don’t really follow a classic narrative but the slow progression of pain, memory and every day details as the seasons change and the characters learn how to live better in her absence. Learn to live without hopelessness. But it cannot be rushed, grief is a “long-term project” (p98). Grief shifts time, it starts by holding you in a dream-like paralysis, while life continues as though nothing has happened and the the book does the same. The Crow arrives in their flat, pinning the Dad to the ground in the hall.
There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.
Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me in a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor.” (p6)
The Crow informs the Dad, “I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.” The Crow forces them to face her death and holds them and beats them with it. The Crow is brutal and mythic and earthy and inhuman: the exchange between “scavenger and philosopher, the goddess of complete being and the black stain, between Crow and his birdiness. It seems to me to be the self-same exchange between mourning and living, then and now.” (p22).
The Dad is initially stunned over the loss of his wife. “The house becomes a physical encyclopedia of no longer hers, which shocks and shocks.” Full of the things she will never use, or finish, or read. “I will stop finding her hairs. I will stop hearing her breathing.” (p20) The boys are both wrecked and coping with their grief, they fight one another and kill a fish with stones. There is little division between the real and imaginary. The three of them have been thrown into an unknown ocean and have to learn how to paddle to shore. It’s a messy business. “Many people said, ‘You need time’, when what we needed was washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows.” (p38)
I picked up Grief is the Thing with Feathers again just over a year ago. I was in a state of hopelessness after the sudden death of my marriage, and, like the Dad, I was stunned. I couldn’t write or sleep. “I felt hung empty. I drank. I smoked roll ups out of the window. I felt that perhaps the main result of her being gone would be that I would permenantly become the organiser, this list-making trader in cliches of gratitude, machine-like architect of routines” (p4). I needed crow to pull me and my fraying household of three children into shape. I needed anything to remind me that we would still be alright in a year. Two years. Divorce is not the same as death, but the grief of it has similar stages. I’d only experienced the lack of division between the real and imaginary once before, when my father died in 2012.
“Permission to leave, I’m done.” (p109) Eventually, the Crow leaves. Hops away. The Dad “couldn’t find him. I did find the boys had flung wet balls of toilet paper onto the bathroom ceiling, which pissed me off because I’d told them that it stained the paint” (p108). Time has moved on and they are connoisseurs of how to miss thier mother. The Dad’s book on Ted Hughes is published and “did well enough”. They scatter her ashes. And like all grief, as it lifts, they are changed by it. The Crow helped them grow into their new shapes.
“Some dads do this, some dads do that. Some natural
evil, some fairly kind.
Pollarded, bollarded, was-it-ever-thus. Elastic snaps, a
sniff and a sneeze and we’re gone.
Coppiced, to grow well.” (p110)
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, Faber & Faber (2015)
I plan to re-start writing The Cabinet of Curiosities again regularly from now on. I’ve missed it.