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Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

“Once upon a time there were two boys who purposefully misremembered things about their father. It made them feel better if ever they forgot things about their mother.”

A young father to two boys griefs his wife who died suddenly, shockingly, in an accident. He struggles to keep going, fights every day for the sake of his sons, fails most days. One day there is a knock on the door. Surely someone offering more kindness he can hardly stand anymore. But no. Opening the door the father finds himself in a whirl of feathers. The crow moved in and refuses to leave the incomplete family until they are ready. Crow is friend and foe, therapist, mother, trickster and metaphor in one. Depending on the human’s needs he will nag and tease or hug and feed. Crow feasts on pain without causing any. At times threatening in its strangeness, crow is goodness, kindness and offers exactly what the grieving need, whether or not they know it.

“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, specter, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.”

This slim collage of a novel is told from the alternating perspectives of Dad, Crow and Boys. The sons speak as one. Two brothers, a scared and devastated unit, whose sections are especially heart-rending in their raw, unfiltered emotion. Dad articulates the many, often surprisingly mundane, aspects of grief with surprising precision. Loss, he reminds us, is most severely felt in the minute habits and certainties, so much second-nature to us we hardly realise they exist until they cease to do so. Crow, the shapeshifter, embodies the aspects of pain that cannot be expressed in normal language. The fourth character besides Dad, Boys and Crow is the absence so real it becomes a presence. The mother that nothing works without. Not least because the masculinity portrayed is quietly helpless without its strong feminine counterpart. The mother everyone is so scared to forget, to outgrow. The mother who filled her family’s lives with meaning and love.

“The house becomes a physical encyclopaedia of no-longer hers. . . . She won’t ever use (makeup, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus). She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).”

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is part novel, part sound poem, that expresses severe emotion without ever turning sentimental or saccharine. Grief can be floods of tears followed by bursts of laughter and Porter gets the balance of sadness and humour just right. Rage, love, fear, loneliness, sadness and hope fill these few pages in Max Porters writing that is prose and poetry, luminous and pliant. This is an author who knows language and how to use it. In his hands words and sentences feel alive. An incredibly precious book, a true work of art. Max Porter manages to describe grief so truthfully, that reading this book both hurts and heals.

“Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.”

Published by Faber & Faber, 2015.

Max Porter's new novel Shy is out now.

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