Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter

Typically I’d have little patience for yet another lyrical story about a tragedy-beset nuclear family told via a patchwork of clever literary references, which is just so voguish right now as to be basically Literary Fiction concentrated, bottled and sold.

But Grief is the Thing with Feathers has a stylistic quality that held my attention. It’s a sort of prose-poetry mash-up about a crow that comes to live with a grieving Ted Hughes scholar and his two young sons following the death of his wife/their mother.

grief is

There’s very little in the way of plot. Dad, ‘The Boys’ and Crow are all point-of-view characters, with each of the book’s page-long chapters comprising a kind of vignette or sketch. Some might detail how the family copes with everyday life as grief impinges on routine, other chapters might be purely abstract: emotional tone poems that evoke a sense of time or a feeling, rather than any specific action. Consistently the ‘Dad’ and ‘Boys’ chapters are very sad, characterised by minimalist imagery and eloquent emotional insights. The ‘Crow’ chapters, by comparison, offer hysterical chaos; a successful tragi-comic juxtaposition to the pathos-laden core of the novel’s subject.

This juxtaposition, in fact, is the best part of the book; the sadness and the hilarity simultaneously both undercut and elevate one another, which successfully stops the humour from becoming farce, and the grief from becoming melodrama. The Crow’s language, for example, is so very present: all movement and feathers and noise, which somehow makes the ‘Dad’ chapters even more poignant for their lack of such action. The primary stylistic trait of the ‘Dad’ sequences is an absence of any narrative act whatsoever, grief as the loss of action, “We will never fight again, our lovely, quick arguments”, which absence, of course, is made all the sharper by the Crow’s energy and frisky coarseness.

It’s a shame, then, that so many critics have been quick to label the ‘Crow’ character as purely allegorical, disregarding its material presence as a physical object within the narrative, “blah blah blah metaphor for the family’s grief blah blah” etc. and etc. I can’t help but feel that disregarding the Crow’s physicality lessens the character’s power as a material juxtaposition to the wife’s absence. Reading the Crow as purely figurative weakens the emotive power of the contrast. Perhaps so many critics do this because the book’s title very bluntly (and misleadingly?) announces the Crow as a metaphor? Or perhaps it’s just symptomatic of literary criticism’s current penchant for hyper-realism. Or maybe people just need to read more SFF, in which the presence of such things is taken at face value, allowing us readers to get on with the more interesting business of dissecting how a text actually functions.

The Crow itself is a sort of convergence of various literary traditions and corvid mythologies. The blackness, the crow as metaphor for grief/death etc. is all given the lofty significance you’d expect, but ‘The Crow’ is also Ted Hughes’ Crow, with many of the book’s chapters structurally echoing the poems in Hughes’ famous collection.

I was struck by this sequence, in which Dad’s grief is impinging on his work (in this case, obstructing his thought process as he compiles a chapter list for his next book):

Ch. 1. Magical Dangers I miss my wife

Ch. 2. Reign of Silence I miss my wife

Ch. 3. Unkillable Trickster I miss my wife

Ch. 4. Aphrodisiac Disaster I miss my wife

(Grief is the Thing with Feathers p.42)

which reminds me of the catechism-like architecture of Hughes’ poem ‘Examination at the Womb-Door’, where instead of ‘I miss my wife’, the interruption (from the Crow) is always the word “Death”, the relevance of which, here, should be obvious:

Who is stronger than hope? Death

Who is stronger than the will? Death

Stronger than love? Death

Stronger than life? Death

(Examination at the Womb-Door, ll 15 – 18)

In fact, many of the book’s chapters could be deracinated from the text and isolated as entirely self-contained poems. Even when the writing is at its most prose-like, Max Porter will employ such poetic techniques as internal rhyme (“Yes, she said, before she was dead”), triple-footed metre (“Once upon a time there was a king who had two sons”), and irregular capitalisation. Lineation is also important here, with lines either running-on, or abruptly terminating in ways which hammer-home points, leave questions hanging, or deliberately interrupt the flow in emotionally significant ways. In a further effort to control the beat of the reading, the text will occasionally look




,which publishers still seem to think is deeply experimental, but which mostly amuses me because it has the potential to fuck with the layout of e-books…

Really, though, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is at its best when it’s not doing weird things with layout, when it’s not aping Ted Hughes and when it’s not chaotically ventriloquising the (admittedly amusing) Crow character. Grief is the Thing with Feathers is at its best in its quieter, most emotionally honest, most raw moments. The small, everyday observations sing more about grief than witty literary references or mythologising ever could. The Dad’s description of his marriage as ‘smack bang in the middle, years from the finish’ cut to my core, and I found the sentence ‘We went to a place she loved’ more moving than any of the book’s more aesthetically estranging attempts at lyricism.


(As a final note, I’ve recently read Cheryl Strayed’s autobiography Wild, which – also about the death of a mother – has a chapter called ‘Corvidology’ in which Crows are described with regards to grief and their being “a symbol of the void”.  I thought this mother/crow dualism between the two books was a nicely serendipitous thing, and isn’t it strange how our reading sometimes coalesces around certain symbols, inadvertently?).

13 responses to “Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter

  1. I really want to read this book at some point. It’s garnered quite a lot of praise in recent months, and rightly so by the sound of things. Your review has convinced me to add it to my wishlist. Love your commentary on the juxtaposition of tones, the humour alongside the sadness. I’ve been wondering if it might be overwhelmingly bleak, but your review suggests that Porter got the balance right in this respect.

    Good to see you blogging again, btw – long may it continue.

    • Many thanks for reading and commenting.

      My blogging confidence goes up and down like a sine wave… I was surprised to realise that it’s almost 9 months since I last blogged. This was a sort of practice run to see if I still have it in me, to be honest.

      I’d love to know your thoughts on GITTWF…. please write about it if you get the chance. It *is* very good… I don’t think I was moved by it quite as profoundly as a lot of readers seem to have been; but, then, I’m always suspicious of works that have this much hype around them, so maybe there was a patina of cynicism covering my reading that other people haven’t had to work through. Not sure.

      Thanks again,

  2. I hadn’t heard of this book. Research reveals it will be published in America this summer by Graywolf Press. It sounds intriguing yet I wonder if a book like this really counts as “formally cutting edge and adventurous” (press release) when so many writers have been experimenting with form since the start of the 20th Century. To me a great deal of modern literary fiction has a very modest aspect – which may just be an unfounded bias of mine as I gravitate to the writings of earlier generations. I will make a note to try Grief is the Thing with Feathers, though.

    By the way, I’m glad to see you back with a review. This has always been one of my favorite blogs and I hope your enthusiasm for it remains. I struggled a lot this past year with keeping my own blog going and I’ve only just begun to recover my energy, so I do sympathize.

    • Thank you so much, it’s so nice that I’ve been getting some positive feedback since I’ve blogged again. I dunno tho, whenever I read-back my own posts they just feel kinda messy, to me.

      As for the experimental…ness of ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’; I’d say it *is* “formally cutting edge”… for something that’s received such mainstream attention and is coming from a major publisher. So in that regard, it’s interesting, at least. The novel-told-via-poetics is fun, though there’s probably a good argument to be made against it even being a novel in the first place. But that kinda formal taxonomy has never interested me, so whatever.

      Let’s be honest though, it’s not high modernism, and free verse is hardly the new kid on the block (hell, there’s a decades-old New Formalist counter-movement, after all), so maybe its innovation is being slightly over-sold. People who don’t read a lot of poetry might be struck by the playfulness of the layout, but then George Herbert was doing weird layout stuff in the Seventeenth Century.

      But Grief…’s value as a text goes way beyond its formal experimentation and structural game playing. The originality of the language and the depth of emotional eloquence outshines, by orders of magnitude, the doesn’t-it-look-weird-on-the-page factor.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  3. You make a good case for it. Funny though as you say how some publishers still seem to see any departure from one word straight after another in a line as experimental, when it’s as old as the hills. One does sometimes get the impression those hailing new books as formally inventive just haven’t read a great deal…

    It is curious to pick up one of your tangents how literary fiction has this almost horror of taking things at multiple levels, not merely as metaphor but also as truth within the text. You see it on tv too, ghost story adaptations which reveal (shock! Save it’s always the same tedious reveal) that it’s not a real ghost but a psychological breakdown or metaphor. It’s a kind of cowardice, a fear of looking childish. Of course we don’t believe in ghosts. But why can’t we? At least for 30 minutes or the course of a book? Why can’t a metaphor leave muddy tracks in the kitchen at least on the page?

    Asking more semi-rhetorical questions, why can a crow not be both metaphor and yet real within the fiction? It’s a book, within its pages an author can create any truth they wish, and to a lesser extent so can the reader. It doesn’t have to be a sharp division between the real and the metaphorical. I think that fear of the possibilities of fiction is what holds a lot of contemporary literary fiction back, a beatification of naturalism as the only true literary form. It’s partly why I like Jeanette Winterson so much, she only cares what’s true and beautiful, she couldn’t give a toss what’s real.

    • Hi Max,

      Many thanks for reading and commenting; and I completely agree. I’d even argue that holding two contradictory ideas about a text simultaneously is a sign of critical maturity, rather than fence-sitting non-committal intellectual weakness. But, you know, everything in criticism has to be a for-or-against opinion these days.

      But yes, it’s a big shame that most reviewers seem to dismiss/ignore the flapping, black noisy materiality of the crow, focusing instead on its value as a metaphor for grief, which, so obviously announced by the title, is hardly an insightful or original observation. It’s also dull; why would you *want* the Crow not to be physically present? It’s so much more fun if it is!

      I’m not sure that literary fiction feels a “horror” over this kind of interpretive pluralism, I’d say it’s more like… embarrassment.

      Maybe there’s a fear that admitting to the reality of a giant talking crow is to “relegate” the novel’s core idea to the realm of fantasy, which might lessen the seriousness of the grief analysis. They’d be wrong to think that, of course, but there’s still an undercurrent of fantasy = silly, and naturalism = real, important, identifiable etc. in criticism these days.

      (When in reality The Lord of the Rings is no less “realistic” than, I dunno, an Ian McEwan novel, because all such texts function on the *same* level.. that is, the fictional. All words are, at best, problematically related to the things they purport to describe, and this problem isn’t lessened by writing about cars and feelings and taxes rather than spaceships, talking crows and Cthuhlu. (Note, for example, that the best novel ever written about the experience of fighting in Vietnam is the far-future Space Opera ‘The Forever War)).

      Of course, many arguments have been made by people far more eloquent than me that literary fiction is just another genre, rather then the default from which non-naturalist genres deviate, but it’s a shame that Literary Fiction as an institution (by which I mean critics, the Booker Prize) etc. and etc. seem so embarrassed by the notion of non-mimetic artefacts in their texts. (I mean c’mon, Helen Oyeyemi or Nina Alan or M. John Harrison or Michael Cisco could easily give 90% of Booker nominees a run for their money!).

      I’m starting to rant a little bit now, and I *still*, after so long thinking about this stuff, haven’t fully arranged my thoughts on it. Have you ever read Benjamin Gabriel on ‘Fantastical Materialism’? Very interesting/helpful stuff (

      Thanks again,

      p.s. I LOVE ” Why can’t a metaphor leave muddy tracks in the kitchen” 🙂

      • Thanks for the link, I’ll check out the article which I hadn’t seen before.

        Good example with The Forever War, though it doesn’t hold for the sequels which don’t entirely maintain the quality of the original it’s fair to say…

        Embarassment is a better word, quite right.

        Also, I’ll echo those saying good to see you back. It is. I like seeing your thoughts, so count me as another welcoming your return.

  4. So great to see you reviewing again TomCat, your reviews continue to inspire, don’t question whether you’ve still got it or not, you certainly do – they are a kind of conversation afterall and by putting them out here, you realise that there are people interested and listening – and in my case – learning.

    I haven’t heard of this book but found the juxtaposition interesting, as it reminded me of something similar that occurs in February by Lisa Moore, the book from the Man Booker 2010 longlist I just read, which is also about grief, but juxtaposed with chapters and scenes of life by necessity moving on, pulling the character out of her reflective inclination and thoughts of suicide, towards practical matters, survival, part of which is the fading memory of the husband, who has less of a pull on her, the more she denies his request to join him. In my own way, I compared it to two different styles of writing I’d come across, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, her grand introspection and dissection of the death of her husband and Anne Tyler, the small canvas of quotidian domestic life.

    Anyway, I hope you’ll be sharing more gems from your reading pile, welcome back and please continue! And thank you for visiting and commenting on my blog, which I plug away at, putting my form of conversations out there that would otherwise remain unspoken.

  5. Really loved this review. I read the book myself a few days ago and you really hit the nail on the head. Really like your style of blogging as well. I find so many prolific reviewers barely scratch the surface, but you really dissect things beautifully but don’t ruin the reading experience for anyone who isn’t familiar with it. I will be writing my own review soon, but I fear, having read yours, it will pale in comparison. =)

  6. Pingback: Everything I read in 2016 | tomcat in the red room

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s