Grief is the Thing With Feathers – Max Porter

There’s a feather on my pillow. 

Pillows are made of feathers, go to sleep.

It’s a big, black feather. 

Come and sleep in my bed. 

There’s a feather on your pillow too. 

Let’s leave the feathers where they are and sleep on the floor.

From what I can gather, Porter’s novella is based on the work of Ted Hughes. Crow: from the Life and Songs of the Crow is Hughe’s second and most ambitious phase of work, where he stated to look at “mythical and narrative sequences”. This work vaguely follows the life of a crow from it’s creation by God, through a nightmare, as it tries to make God’s creations “better” or more successful. Additionally it makes its way around the world in search of a female creator and often aids people. This is what Porter seems to be showing. 

This novella doesn’t seem to fit in either a fiction, non fiction, or poetry form, but it seems to be all encompassing. The story follows a family of three, two young boys and their father after their mother dies. They are joined by a crow who acts as a Mary Poppins-esque counsellor, threatening to stay until he is no longer needed. This novel explores how people experience grief and the many coping mechanisms people have to get through the darkness that is the death of a loved one. 

What I find is absolutely stunning about this novel, is it’s pace. I read this book in 45 minutes and throughout there was humour and truth, as well as absolute confusion. The switch between each of the three characters “Dad”, “Boys” and “Crow” means that the novel reads really quickly. There are one line “chapters” and the average is only about a page for each point of view. I also love the confusion of which child is talking. They’re memories mix and become one and you’re never aware of their names so it could just be anyone. 

This ambiguity also carries through to their mother. We don’t ever hear how she dies specifically which I think is part of the beauty of this novel. This reads as just an exploration of unspecified grief which makes it so relatable to anyone who’s experienced the emotion. And it also gives a normality to the feeling of grief. Everyone, no matter the cause of death, is allowed to grieve the one they’ve lost. There’s no level of severity, beneath which you’re not allowed to grieve. That would be silly. This book gives way for emotion to be freely experienced, explored through a majority male cast of characters. This is so important, especially in our current world, as I feel men are often expected not to show emotion. 

The crow in itself is interesting to me. The way in which Porter has written the crow is really intriguing as many of the early chapters don’t seem to make much sense on a first reading. Many of his chapters read like prose poetry and it’s only when you get to the end of the chapter that you understand what has been spoken about. For example, this is often his nightmare situations or his bad dreams, as well as his actions and stories from his past. I feel like I and many other readers, would gain more from a second reading of this novella. It takes a little while to sink in and even longer to really take in the severity and beauty of what Porter is trying to portray. Additionally, I feel like I maybe need to comprehend the time scale a little better as currently I believe that it skips forward in the second part due to the shift in the language of the boys, but then it shifts back to the innocent childlike language towards the end. 

Overall I think that Porter has written a really great novella with a hard hitting message, masked in humour and intrigue, that introduces a new age to the idea of the Crow, Ted Hughes and the freedom of emotion. This book is surely like nothing I’ve read before and I’m not sure I’m likely to read anything like it again for a long time. 

Read more on this novella from Max Porter’s Guardian interview here!

Total pages – 114

Total read time – 45 minutes

Rating /10 – 7

Recommend – Yes


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