Grief is the Thing with Feathers

feathersThe Short Version: After death of his wife, a Ted Hughes scholar receives a visitor in the form of Crow. The husband and his two sons, along with their guest, attempt to navigate this new motherless world and discover what grief truly is.

The Review: I have never lost, not truly. High school friends have died tragically, grandmothers passed decade(s) ago after long and vibrant lives, dogs (best friends, in their way) have gone to the endless fields, cultural icons who inspired and to whom I aspired have left us – but these losses do not and did not feel like grief. This is not to say that I was not sad, that I did not grieve – but what grief there was did not last so long. Those griefs do not still linger or unexpectedly reappear. They are not that kind. And I have not yet known that kind.

It is inevitable, of course, that someday I will. For this, I am glad to have books like this or Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Books that reveal grief and do not seek to universalize – but in their single specific grief, they present a reminder that there is no one way, no single truth, and that a person will get through this. Those sound like clichés and they might be. But while the sentiments contained herein might be familiar, I promise that this book is unlike anything else you’ve ever read.

Presented in a kind of prose-poem style, the narrative shifts between three points of view: “Dad”, “Boys”, and “Crow”. The specifics are revealed only insofar as we learn that a woman has died and left her husband and two boys. The sons are school-aged, the husband is a poetry scholar working on a book about Ted Hughes. Her death was sudden. And that’s about all we get. But that’s all we need, because the specifics are unimportant. What matters is what comes after, no matter what had happened to cause it.

And the event of the book, as it were, is the arrival of this character Crow. Crow could be many things: real/imaginary, trickster/guardian, helper/hurter. Crow is, perhaps, all of these things at once; the contradictions are just a part of the package. I do wonder if I might’ve understood Crow a little better knowing the poem(s) from which he springs (Ted Hughes’ “Crow”, the first thing he produced after the death of Sylvia Plath) – but, again, I don’t believe that the foreknowledge is necessary in the way it might be in most other works. Grief comes to us all, differently – and so we only need as much information as we have. The rest, we will discover on our way.

Crow, in one address, likens itself to both doctors and ghosts, in terms of being a device. “We can do things other characters can’t,” it pontificates – and here is the curiosity, perhaps only to be fully realized upon completing and flipping back through this slim tome: Crow is conscious, the whole time, of being a character, a figment, some kind of fictional but not fictional as in the fictional on-the-page, written-by-Max-Porter, meta-fictional-conscious. Crow, instead, is conscious of being a fiction in the world of Dad and Boys. It’s a tricky layering and Porter pulls it off beautifully: he creates metafiction out of life, not out of fiction.

Mostly, though, this book is just a beautiful meditation. It is a scream, a shout, a sob. It somehow, in barely a hundred pages, encapsulates so much of what makes us truly human: our capacity for storytelling and our desire for knowledge & understanding. Crow’s final chapter, which I’ll leave for you to read yourself, is one of the most moving and beautiful pieces of language ever put to paper – and while the end result of this novel is simply life, continuing… I don’t know, it feels glib to say (considering my own inexperience with grief), but that feels like a miracle. Just life, itself, continuing.

Rating: 5+ out of 5. A transcendent piece of literature. In just over a hundred pages, Max Porter has encapsulated what it means to love and lose, to grieve, and to make peace with that grief so that you can continue to live. Along the way, there are meditations on parenting, metafiction, storytelling, and so much more – but at its core, it is a reminder that grief visits us all and that all of us can and will move through it. Crow may visit us but he comes not to haunt or maim or kill; instead, he comes to guide and help us and then, when the time is right, he will move along. And we will be okay.

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