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Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter


A mother dies and we, the reader, are immediately thrown into the post-funeral household of a Ted Hughes-obsessed academic and his two sons.  This is a story about grieving given from the perspective of four main characters: the father, the two sons and a crow.  Crow is part nursemaid, part grief councillor, part antagonist and adds an interesting dynamic to this compact novella.

Anyone who has lost someone close to them will recognise the highs and lows of grieving within this book.  Porter has succinctly caught the period when this family is on an emotional roller-coaster, fluctuating between the pain of grieving and the joy of remembering their dead wife/mother.  Each character tries to grapple with death in their own way. The boys relate death to their own experience when they killed a guppy fish in a rock pool.  The father deals with his wife’s death, at first by drinking too much before acknowledging “She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm)”.  Such unimportant everyday objects are the painful reminders to the living of the vacuum the wife has created within their family unit.   As the family readjusts to life without their mother, crow helps them to mourn and continue with their lives as best as they can.

It is the characterisation of crow, which I adore in this book.   Porter anthropomorphises crow by giving him a tricksy, inquisitive nature, which materialises in crow’s voice.  Written part prose, part poem. It is the jumping from topic to topic, while still maintaining a single strand of thought that to me conjures up these carrions.

“Head down, tot-along, looking

Head down, hop-down, totter.


KRAAH NOTES’ (Collins Guide to Birds, p.45)

Head down, bottle-top, potter.

Head down, mop-a-lot, hopper.

He could learn a lot from me.

That’s why I’m here.”

This book could get drearily depressing if it wasn't tempered by crow’s upbeat, playful character.  Crow lifts the book out of the morgue and back into the land of the living and in this sense Porter has balanced the serious topic of grief with that of light relief.

All sorts of theories have been written about grief from the psychologist Kubler-Ross to others who believe there is a seven stages of grief model. Porter instead seems to simply summed it up in one statement when the father says “I miss my wife.”   Grief is learning about how to let go.

Written by Rachel Boser



Max Porter

Faber & Faber

ISBN 978-0-571-32376-0


Max Porter is speaking at Daunts Book Festival, Thursday 10th March, 10.00-11.00am - £6. 83 Marylebone High Street, London, W1U 4QW.  020 7224 2295 www.dauntbooks.co.uk

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