Good Grief


Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter (10, Faber)


Grief is one of those strange things no-one really knows how to write about. Yes, we miss people, yes we're upset for ourselves, yes it heals with time, but how can any writer capture the elusiveness of it, the way grief and mourning pops up unasked for in the long term, just when you think things have adapted and changed, that life is moving on, things have changed for the better?

In this new slim 100 page book, Max Porter personifies grief as a crow; a black stinking shadow in the corner, a wise yet anarchic and unwanted presence in a household where a mother has died and two boys and their father try to carry on.

I found the book yesterday in Waterstones and read it in one sitting last night in bed - it's pages aren't even full of oversize type in narrow columns, and there are big gaps between sections, as the boys, the father and crow all get to 'speak' in turn. The short blurb on the front flyleaf explains that the father is a Ted Hughes scholar, which gives a reason for the appearance of Crow and justifies Max Porter's appropriation of Hughes' invention. (Except, of course, that Hughes borrowed Crow from trickster mythology and folk tales anyway.)

I was surprised when I googled the book this morning and found that I'd missed several national newspaper reviews, but also surprised by their what-seems-to-me wilful misreading of the book. Many reviewers seem to suggest this is Porter inhabiting the psyche of Hughes after Plath's death; I don't think it is.

Porter's Crow is a more domestic, less violent bird. It inhabits a world of thwarted familial life, gives voice to despair and confusion, acting as a dark part of the father himself, which he fights and argues with whilst trying to keep his house in order and on track. This Crow is a personification of absence, a black hole in the father's and the boys' life; the elephant in the room which has become a bird. He is sarcastic, funny, pretentious, argumentative, interfering, comforting and elliptical. He facilitates memory and pain and healing.

Late on in the book, Crow asks permission to be gone, then recounts how he found the mother's body, and leaves some advice, including 'Just be good and listen to birds.' Then he is gone. The boys and the father sprinkle their mother's ashes and shout their love out loud into the wind, a cathartic scream of loss and pain and love. Then the book ends, although we know the pain will not.

This is a beautiful, painful, heartfelt book. An exquisite literary miniature.


   Rupert Loydell 2015