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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Max Porter: "Grief Is the Thing with Feathers"

Author:  Max Porter  
Title:  Grief Is the Thing with Feathers 
Genre:  Fable/Essay/Novella (Magical Realism?)
Ratings:  Violence1; Sensuality1; Humor—1.5   
Publisher:  Graywolf Press (6/2016)

                         PUBLISHER'S BLURB                          
     Here he is, husband and father, scruffy romantic, a shambolic scholar—a man adrift in the wake of his wife’s sudden, accidental death. And there are his two sons, who, like him, struggle in their London flat to face the unbearable sadness that has engulfed them. The father imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness while the boys wander, savage and unsupervised. 

     In this moment of violent despair they are visited by Crow—antagonist, trickster, goad, protector, therapist, and babysitter. This self-described “sentimental bird,” at once wild and tender, who “finds humans dull except in grief,” threatens to stay with the wounded family until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and the pain of loss lessens with the balm of memories, Crow’s efforts are rewarded and the little unit of three begins to recover: Dad resumes his book about the poet Ted Hughes; the boys get on with it, grow up. 

    Part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief, Max Porter’s extraordinary debut combines compassion and bravura style to dazzling effect. Full of angular wit and profound truths, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a startlingly original and haunting debut by a significant new talent.

Awards and Recognition in the UK:
Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award
Winner of the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize
One of the Irish Times’s Best Books of 2015
One of the Independent’s Best Debut Fiction Books of 2015
Spectator UK Best Book of 2015
                         MY REVIEW                          
    You may remember reading an Emily Dickinson poem back in high school, a poem with this first verse:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all - 

     Porter substitutes grief for hope, but keeps the featherslong black ones that come from a gigantic, introspective, wise-cracking crow who might be a psychotic delusion or perhaps just a metaphor come to life to ease a grief-stricken family through the difficult days, and then years, following the sudden death of Mum, the young wife and mother of the household.

     In addition to the Dickinson connection, the book has a number of references to Ted Hughes, about whom Dad is writing a book. Hughes famously wrote an entire book of poems featuring Crow, the mythological trickster (Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow).

     When Crow shows up on the family's doorstep one dark and frigid night, Dad opens the door only to be swept up in "a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor. One shiny jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket…And this is what he said: I won't leave until you don't need me any more." Dad lays back, "resigned, and wished my wife wasn't dead. I wished I wasn't lying terrified in a giant bird embrace in my hallway…Hello Crow, I said. Good to finally meet you...For the first time in days I slept." 

     Porter has Crow, Dad, and the Boys take turns telling the story in a stream-of-consciousness first-person voice filled with fierce emotion and deep sadness. Early on, Crow explains his role: "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, specter, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter…A myth to be slipped in. Slip up into."

     Crow is determined to see the family safely through their hopeless grief, and the family seems to recognize and welcome his help as they confront the details of their new motherless life. Porter beautifully illustrates the debilitating capacity of those details: Dad becomes an "expert in the behavior of orbiting grievers,...the overwhelmeds, the affectedly lackadaisicals,…the overstayers, the new best friends of hers, of mine, of the boys." The boys remember that when Dad told them what happened to Mum they were thinking, "Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamor of an event like this? Where are the strangers going out of their way to help [as they] try and settle us and save us?" But there were no crowds and no policejust dull routine: "We stayed in our PJs and people visited and gave us stuff. Holiday and school became the same."

     In the early days, Crow grumbles and pokes around each room in the apartment: "the whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief." He picks at their unbrushed teeth as they sleep, comments on their behavior, and leaves glossy, black feathers in his wake. Later, after more time has passed, Dad remembers scenes from his early, ecstatic days with his wife, "when our love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes." At one point Dad rhapsodizes sentimentally about how much he misses his wife: "I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds, and more. The whole city is my missing her." Crow responds sarcastically, "Eugh…you sound like a fridge magnet."

     The Boys sometimes fight and misbehave and lie, but "Some of the time we tell the truth. It's our way of being nice to Dad." And when Dad is really hurting, they press up close to him on the sofa, and he has to "double over and hold myself because they are so kind and keep regenerating and recharging their kindness without any input from me." 

     Even though the theme of the book is grief, there are many moments of jet-black humor, frequently from Crow, but also from Dad and the Boys. When a friend asks Dad, "Are you seeing anyone?…To talk things through?," Dad nearly laughs out loud as he thinks about Crow muttering and puttering about the apartment handing out advice and leaving a feathery trail. Dad suppresses a smile and tells his friend, "Yes…You don't need to worry. I am being helped."

     The book ends, of course, when it is finally time for Crow to leave. Dad remembers that a year of two after his wife's death, friends advised him to move on. But if you have ever lost a loved one, you knowjust like Dad and Crow knowthat, "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 sow or speed or fix." 

     Eventually, Dad and Crow have a final conversation: 
Dad: "Did I respond as well as you'd hoped?"
Crow: "Better. But the credit should go to the boys, and to the [publishing] deadline. I knew that by the time you sent your publisher your final draft my work would be done."
Dad: "I would be done grieving?"
Crow: "No, not at all. You were done being hopeless. Grieving is something you're still doing, and something you don't need a crow for…It is the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic."
     This is a wonderful first novel that is packed with emotion—deep and true—and presented in a wildly inventive manner. It's definitely not the paranormal fiction that I usually review on this blog, but the addition of the trickster, Crow, to the storyline does push it into the realm of magical thinking in which a metaphor comes to life in the characters' lives and helps them make it through the nights and the days and the years to come. It's a touching and poignant story that is well worth reading.

     Click HERE to read an excerpt from Grief Is the Thing with Feathers on its by clicking on the cover art on that page for access to the first two chapters. Click HERE and HERE and HERE to read interviews with the author about this novel.

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