From 2015, we have English writer Max Porter’s debut work: Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. It’s a novella about the loss of a family member, told from the point of view of a husband, his two sons, and an invasive crow. The latter decides to guide the family back towards psychological recovery.
The front cover got our attention as we have a crow mad mortal enemy over in America. So we went ahead and stole a copy to review. The novella won several awards in 2015 and makes for an intriguing look into the nature of grief. There are dollops of absurdity, comedy, and the macabre that swoop along together rather well indeed. Caw!
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers
Okay, so the novella begins with a man and his two sons feeling lost following the death of their doting wife/mother. Whilst trying to cope with this, they suddenly start finding giant black feathers left on their pillows. Then, almost immediately afterwards, Crow arrives to shake up their grief, take them under his wing, and help them recover.
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers plays out in short, sharp paragraphs that sometimes use poetry verse and mess about with language in general. The father tells his version of events. The boys discuss theirs. Crow plunges in with his, often quite unstable and seemingly Machiavellian, thoughts and feelings. Behold his caw-ing:
"But I care, deeply. I find humans dull except in grief. There are very few in health, disaster, famine, atrocity, splendour or normality that interest me (interest ME!) but the motherless children do. Motherless children are pure crow. For a sentimental bird it is ripe, rich and delicious to raid such a nest."
Whilst Crow is doing a good deed, and tries to make himself clear on that, his erratic behaviour never appears too far away from something worse. He even has a rather malicious dream that, had it been real, had the potential to emotionally devestate the two sons.
For his part, Crow is upset about the dream. But his subconscious appears to be mulling over the dastardly in tandem with his magnanimous streak. And so this is how the novella plays out as you wonder of the fate of the father and his boys. Is Crow genuinely helping? What can this mysterious winged-wonder do?
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When we bought this book in Manchester, the shop assistant was ranting enthusiastically about its excellence. There’s also a mass of glowing reviews on its front cover. We certainly did enjoy reading it, but the “Unlike anything I’ve read before” review from The Guardian doesn’t quite ring true for us.
It’s a fun, entertaining read with some touching insights on grief, interesting asides on the macabre, as well as bouts of humorous ranting from Crow. But the latter character is nothing unusual. There’s Haruki Murakami’s after the quake, with the ambivalent Frog, that springs to mind for us.
A distorted character that subverts the norms is a great literary device, though, and it works well here. And the novella does leave a lot open to interpretation. Which makes it all a fun read we can recommend – just don’t expect the Earth changing results some of the reviews are making out. Caw!
Okay, a bit about cows. Sorry, crows. They’re a lot like ravens, except not – the latter tend to travel in pairs. Crows are often in large groups, plus they have a tail shaped like a fan. They’re also mega intelligent animals (as Sir Dave Attenborough explains below) that can problem solve to an incredible degree.
This isn’t just intrinsic problem solving from generations gone by, either. They can work stuff out. Realising those objects rushing about on roads are heavy and can break stuff is a remarkable assessment. We know many humans here in Manchester who wouldn’t be able to make such analytical decision making.
You can just watch the things, listen to them in the morning, or get one as a pet. If that’s your thing. They’re pretty cool to us. Although we prefer comical pigeons. But if you want your crow fix, one option is Grief Is The Thing With Feathers… just don’t presume this is what they’re really like, yeah? Crows don’t talk. Not in English, anyway.