I was still struggling through a reading slump when I read about Grief is the Thing with Feathers online. Something about the title drew me in, and reading the synopsis pulled me in even further. At the time the book hadn’t been published, but I bought it soon after its release.
A father and his two young sons face the sudden death of their wife and mother. In the depths of their grief and despair, the Ted Hughes scholar and his children are visited by Crow who will help and guide them through their grief, staying until they no longer need him. Crow teases them, tells crude stories, protects them, offers advice. Written from the perspectives of the boys, the Dad, and Crow, we see snapshots through time, the book charting their grief and the tentative process of healing.
At 114 pages, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a slim book but it’s an emotionally heavy one. There are lines throughout that feel like a punch to the stomach. Poetic lines that make me stop and hold my finger in my place for a moment, and just…think. This is either because of the beauty in the way the line is written, or for its startling truth. I feel that, in this book, Porter really uncovers and articulates the essence of being human and grieving.
‘We pissed on the seat. We never shut drawers. We did these things to miss her, to keep wanting her.’ (p 49)
‘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’. (p 71)
‘We seem to take it in ten-year turns to be defined by it, sizeable chunks of cracking on, then great sink-holes of melancholy’. (p 96)
I feel I could keep adding quotes upon quotes that I’ve written down.
The book as a whole is powerful, almost an embodiment of grief and losing someone, of people living with the weight of their loved one’s absence. There’s an unexpected humour underneath the sadness too which, for me, just makes this book even weightier with feeling, heavier with the complex mix of emotions that accompany death and grief and the shock of losing someone.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers is written as a mixture of prose and poetry, something which is very effective, but I struggled with it at first. The first chapter from Crow’s perspective, for example, is almost a stream of consciousness, a torrent of words which I struggled to unpick and glean meaning from. I decided to let the words flow over me, getting the emotions, rather than the meaning, from them. This helped me to settle into the voice and the structure of the novella. Immediately after finishing the book, I reread it because I felt that I would appreciate it more, understand more now that I’d grown used to the voice and knew what to expect. I picked up on things I missed before, and my rereading didn’t lessen the impact of the words.
The father is a Ted Hughes scholar and this plays a large part in the book – the Crow being the Crow from Hughes’ poetry. I know nothing about Ted Hughes and his work, so I found the book a little alienating at times because I could tell there were references I just wasn’t getting. Crow, for example, sometimes tells fairytale-like stories – some of which I struggle to work out the significance of, but they do make me think. It has led me to look into Hughes and his work though, and I’d be interested to reread this novella after reading Hughes’ Crow just to uncover more of the references. And that’s one of the things I like about this book: it’s not an easy or straightforward read; it’s one that makes me question what I’ve read, think about its ideas, and has ignited curiosity in something outside of the work. And isn’t that what reading is about sometimes?
As I finished this book, I read it had been shortlisted for the Goldsmith’s Prize – a prize which, according to the website, has a spirit of “creative risk”. I’m not surprised to see Porter’s novella there. Not only is it beautifully and powerfully written, but its form and structure push the boundaries of ‘typical’ prose to create something original and thought-provoking.
Have you read Grief is the Thing with Feathers? What did you think?