It has been brilliant having a good old sort out of books wherever they may be shelved, or indeed hiding, in the house as it has reminded me of the books I have to look forward to and also the ones that I have loved and the ones that I have loved and haven’t written about yet. One of the books which has probably made both the biggest impression on me, whilst reading and in the pondering it has left me with since, has to be Max Porter’s debut Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Such an impression did it leave on me (and so many thoughts did it bring) I had to read it twice within a short space of time.
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.
It is no surprise that from the title of a novel such as Grief is the Thing with Feathers the subject is going to be, you guessed it, grief. Whilst the idea of members of a family coming to terms with the passing of a loved one and the effect this has on them might not be the newest of subjects, I think it is safe to say that I have never read a book that describes the varying emotions of grief in such an honest and fractured way. We see grief through the eyes of the three people in the house, a father and two sons, as they try to come to a way of understanding the loss that now surrounds them and the blank unknown of what lies ahead. Into this space appears Crow an unwelcome guest who is both helpful and hindering and who will stay put until these three no longer need him.
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. I was friend excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.
What or who Crow is changes on the page as often as it will in the readers mind. Is this actually a crow that has just happened upon the scent of loss and wants to do some good? Should we judge him on his dark and pointed exterior for the trickster we see? Is Crow a manifestation of a husband’s way of dealing with the emptiness that invades every thought or is the manifestation of the two boys missing their mother? Is it a father’s madness taking on the form of his slight obsession with the poet Ted Hughes* as some sort of coping mechanism and/or breakdown? Is he an entire emotion come to life filling every piece of emptiness in these three’s house and worlds post death? Could Crow be all of these things? It is up to the reader to make up their own mind.
One of the reasons that I was so gripped/intrigued/horrified by Grief is the Thing with Feathers was the character of Crow, who is a riddle in himself and a puzzle you want to solve. I was also completely captivated by the writing. I felt whilst reading that I was under some kind of spell in the way it mixes the reality of grief, and the horror of it, with a slightly giddy yet unnerving sense of the fairytale or the supernatural. There’s a raw modern narrative and a very quintessentially gothic essence to it which I also loved. It also feels in many ways like an essay to grief that is also a poem, the language is wonderful even when it seems utterly bizarre, you are hooked.
Look at that, look, did I not, oi, stab it. Good book, funny bodies, open door, slam door, spit this, lick that, lift, oi, look, stop it.
The main thing that I really loved (if that is the right word) about this book however was the depiction of grief. I always have huge admiration for writers who tackle the difficult or the ugly things in life and, no matter how hard it might be to write or to read, embrace them and give us them with their full honesty, unflinchingly. As I mentioned when I read Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love, grief is something which we really do not like to talk about and yet we all face and when we do we really need someone to talk about it with. Max Porter has created a novel which does this with a rage and a beauty that moved me so much.
Without sounding too daft, as I read this book I felt like I was going through grief again, in a strange way both for this fictional family that I have never met (because they don’t exist Simon) and for anyone I have lost in my life. On one page I would be slightly confused, the next I would be laughing like a drain, the following I would be howling and then there were those particular brutal bittersweet moments where we mourn everything we have lost and celebrate everything that we had, those memories which break our hearts but remind us of the wonder of love and the people we love or have loved.
The house becomes a physical encyclopaedia of no-longer hers, which shocks and shocks and is the principle difference between our house and a house where illness has worked away. Ill people, in their last day on Earth, do not leave notes stuck to bottles of red wine saying ‘OH NO YOU DON’T COCK CHEEK’. She was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.
So to put it simply, I think that Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a rather exceptional book. It is one which puts you through the ringer, leaving you distraught and then hopeful. It is the sort of book you rush through once and then have to go back through and read slowly taking all the intricacies in and then pondering over it all afterwards. It resonated with me and affected me, which is all I ever hope for from a book – one of my books of the year.
*Oh, before I go I should mention the Ted Hughes connection which I have seen has caused some discussion over the interweb with many a bookish sort. If any of you are wondering if you need to have an appreciation of Ted Hughes and his Crow in particular my answer would be no… Because I have read very little Hughes and I had no idea that the Crow collection existed. Before you call me a heathen (possibly too late) I can say that having read Grief is The Thing With Feathers I have got a copy waiting for me at the bookshop to pick up on pay day. So not only did the book affect me greatly, it also got me heading for a poetry collection which is not my normal bag at all. What can I say? Something about the soul of this book resonated with me that I want to find out more around it, even though it is fiction. Yes, this book is that good, not that I needed to tell you again.