“In other versions I am a ghost or a doctor. 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, ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.”

Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers 

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Grief is the thing with feathers – Max Porter

Grief is the thing with feathers is astonishing: part poem, part novel, part collection of aphorisms; it is funny, intensely sad and wise at the same time.

It’s a simple set up, describing how a father and his two young sons cope – or not – with the death of the much loved wife and mother. It alternates between the perspective of the Dad and the Boys, with short often poetic descriptions of episodes or feelings, taking them chronologically from the early days to reflections many years later.

What the approach reveals are some stark truths about loss, the often very different perceptions of the Dad and the boys of the same things, but also the closeness that the three of them feel for one another despite the hard experiences of loss they are going through.

That alone would be enough, but what gives the work an extra dimension is the appearance of a human size crow which comes to live with them after her death.

Crow is part of the father’s imagination and, it seems, represents grief. Crow is a foil, a practical joker, an ear, a guide, a protector and much more to the Dad. Crow does all those complex things that grief does and, because the feeling of grief seems so solid and tangible and immovable, the recalcitrant presence of a wild bird seems fitting.

Why a crow specifically? In part I assume because a crow, with its viciousness and wildness and blackness, is a fine representation of grief (a murder of crows is, after all, the collective noun). But also because the Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar. If I knew Hughes’ writing better I would, I guess, have seen countless references throughout Porter’s book.

And Crow is funny. The boys’ passages often lighten the mood, but not as much as crow’s. He is crude, cruel and a joker some of the time. After a few years the Dad has sex with someone for the first time since the wife died, for example. It’s a tender section, very poignant and raw, but then ends with Crow… ‘When I came down Crow was on the sofa impersonating me pumping and groaning.’

This is a short book with nearly every page containing some insight into love and loss. It is the kind of book to read more than once, to keep coming back to for more.