A book about grief, published by Faber, part-grafted onto the mythology of Ted Hughes “Crow” – I was very excited indeed when my copy of Grief is the Thing with Feathers finally arrived. Since I first bought a copy of The Birthday Letters when I was about fifteen, desperately lost in the poetry section of a bookshop, trying to look knowledgeable and seizing an ice-blue collection I’d never heard of, I have loved Ted Hughes. I’ve spent hours poring over those poems; I wrote about him in my finals when everything else eluded me; and now, as I’m finally beginning to take a real interest in the natural world, his are the words which accompany me. Max Porter, though, is a next-level Hughes fan. I may have a picture postcard of Ted Hughes pinned to my wall at work, but he has taken Hughes’ “crow” and turned him into a puckish, violent, sentimental guardian in his debut novel, leading a young family through the first throes of hopeless grief and back into the light.
I’ve called it a novel, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily accurate. The slim volume is really a hybrid of prose fiction; poetry; fable; essay; and a kind of sparse, talking-head dialogue. Divided into three short sections, Grief is the Thing with Feathers begins just after the death of a young mother. Her husband is left in their London home with their two young sons, trying to write a book about Hughes whilst also coping with the agony of loss and the perversity of everyday life continuing around him. Into this chaos marches Crow – the embodiment of Hughes’ vision, a foul carrion bird determined to carry the family through their grief: I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore, Crow promises. He is a brutal, hilarious, sentimental creation, nursing the boys through their sorrow like a perversion of Mary Poppins, and haunting their father like a kind of tender poltergeist.
Porter has made it clear that his book is inspired by rather than wedded to Hughes’ Crow, and you don’t need any familiarity with the poems to appreciate Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Perhaps it adds to the mythology, though to know that Crow was first conceived as Hughes’ visceral response to Plath’s suicide, and that, like Porter’s Crow, he lives in the shades of death, fable, guilt and love, searching for something female. He gripped her hard so that life/ Should not drag her from that moment/ He wanted all future to cease….
The story is told from the three perspectives of “Dad”, “Boys” and “Crow”, and their voices intertwine as the strange family navigate loss together. It is at once grounded in a shockingly funny, jet-black comedy, and also drifting in a kind of timeless semi-psychosis. Which makes it feel vital, and incredibly real – because grief is fragmenting and can make you lose your grip on reality, but it also lives in the every day. The practical shock that she won’t ever use (make-up turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus) and that She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm) is as shocking as the dream-like passage in which the boys sprint downstairs to open the door to a demon who feeds on grief, chambers of the baffled baby hearts filled with yearning. And the comedy – mainly supplied by Crow – is perfect. Crow, we learn, likes history books, is composing a memoir, and has nightmares about singing like a blackbird. In one passage, as Dad tries to articulate the depth of his loss (concluding that The whole city is my missing her), Crow accuses him of sounding like a fridge magnet. It’s how, eventually, we recover – finding the ability to laugh at ourselves as we make ourselves ridiculous, even in the depths of despair.
It is essentially a cruel, violent process. No-one is spared here. Crow tells Dad that if his wife were a ghost, she certainly wouldn’t be wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house, or mooching about bemoaning the loss of her motherhood – no, she would have side-stepped her husband to find herself in the golden days of her childhood. In one fairy-tale re-imagining of their plight, the porcine King (Dad) tells his unruly Princes (the Boys) that their mother was certainly not the friend-of-a-friend I called Queen. The boys fight and bleed and mock their father, Crow weeps and is cooked alive. Grief is wild and uncontrollable. The family, though, are also resilient and gentle with one another, until hopelessness is replaced by long-term grief – which they will carry all their lives, but which is manageable, and will not stop them rediscovering joy. Finally, when Crow eventually takes his leave, you feel as though you can hear their mother’s voice, just for a moment, in his tender parting advice. Horror is eventually replaced by kindness, and the worst is behind them.
It’s an exquisite, agonising, wonderfully funny book, staring grief in the eye with an ego-less intelligence and humanity. There is even a cameo from Hughes himself. I couldn’t have hoped for anything more.