Review: Max Porter’s debut ‘Grief Is the Thing With Feathers’ soars with complexity


You can’t judge a book by its thickness. It is time to retire the diminutive words often called upon to describe shorter novels and novellas and works of nonfiction — slim, spare, compact, jewel-of-a or worse,quick, fast, light, little — anything that suggests a book is missing something in length or heft — for the underlying (perhaps unintentional) implication is that the book is a simpler or speedier read, or that it was somehow easier to write.

I saw evidence of this with the publication of Jenny Offill’s stunning 2014 novel, “Dept. of Speculation,” a book that was both funny and frosty, and provocative and sad on the subjects of marriage, motherhood and the expected role of women in families.

“Dept. of Speculation” was a tether that kept me from floating away during my own first year as a mother; it was smart, experimental, unflinching and tender. For that it received near-universal acclaim by critics who found it difficult to describe. It made year-end best lists, sold well and was shortlisted for major awards — yet won none.


So although it doesn’t make up for that book’s awardlessness, it is heartening to see Max Porter’s first book, “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers” — an excellent fragmentary novella with a title referencing Emily Dickinson’s poem that is as sad and electric and, yes, short — win the substantial Dylan Thomas Prize. The award — $43,000 for a book of fiction by a writer 39 or younger — is meant to be significant support to a writer at the beginning of his or her career.

“Grief Is the Thing With Feathers” tells a story of a newly widowed father of two boys living in London, wrestling with the grief of losing the wife and mother of their small clan. The book is narrated from rapidly alternating perspectives, the unnamed Dad — a Ted Hughes scholar trying to finish a book about his controversial subject called “Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis” — the unnamed Boys, and Crow.

Crow is an interloper in the form of a human-sized bird who arrives, like some kind of bizarro Mary Poppins, to seemingly assist and support the trio in their grieving process. The bird whooshes into their home, embracing the widower under his wing — the father explains the bewildering sensation: “Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor.”

Weirder still, the bird, with its “one shiny jet-black eye … blinking slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket…” can speak. “I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more,” he declares.

Crow is the Crow from Ted Hughes’ 1970 poetry book, the first he published after a fallow period following Sylvia Plath’s suicide — and for Hughes and Porter, Crow is the crow of mythology, a trickster and a totem. Additionally in “Grief,” Crow is a kind of maternal figure — a nanny and a therapist, a mama bird and a headmaster — someone to look over the three of them, somewhat bossily and threateningly, while reveling in the horrendous nature of their agony. “Motherless children are pure crow,” Crow says. “For such a sentimental bird it is ripe, rich and delicious to raid such a nest.” [16] (There are four grieving children in this book, the boys, and in the shadows, the children of Sylvia and Ted.)

What of this arrival of this mythological crow? Is it a good thing? Dad, does in fact, needs help. He isn’t himself. The Boys are fighting and yet are also having to comfort their father, who is struggling to be present for them while balking at taking over the domestic duties. Dad and Boys are surrounded by mom-wife’s belongings, and Dad is stunned by their new lack of purpose, and his own feeling of purposelessness. He notes:


She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.

This is not a book easy to explain, because grief is not an easy feeling to convey, which is partly why the experimental form works so well here. The three alternating perspectives, from Crow, to Dad, to the Boys act as a frenzied and mournful circling of the slippery-to-define grief. The narrative takes the form internal observations, incantations, passages of prose poetry, and the Boys have a heartbreaking communion with their ghost mother:

I lie about how you died, I whispered to Mum.


I would do the same, she whispered back.

It also isn’t a book that is just about grief. I hadn’t read Ted Hughes’ work for a long time, and like many once-upon-an-adolescent-time American Plath fans, very naively, I reached out to Hughes’ work in an attempt to understand and intellectualize Plath’s poetry and suicide, and then I didn’t like what I saw and closed the door in his face.

I wouldn’t have guessed there was a book in the world, let alone a novella, that would have awakened an interest in me to return to Ted Hughes, but this one did. It isn’t an apology for Hughes’ deficiencies as a husband; instead, it makes a case for his poetry’s significance. The poetry is important to Dad, so much so that Crow materializes straight from Ted Hughes’ pen to Dad and the Boys’ reality.

Porter has spoken of losing his father at a young age and has credited Hughes’ writing with helping his own mourning. “Grief Is the Thing with Feathers” argues that books, literature and poetry can help save us. This book is a sublime and painful conjuring of a family’s grief and the misfit creature with the power to both haunt and help them. It is a complex story, not simply-told or sparse: Nothing is missing. Let it be a call for more great books of this length to be recognized for what they are — whole. Extraordinary is a book with feathers.

Devers is a writer and Longreads contributing editor and lives in London.


Grief Is the Thing With Feathers


Max Porter

Graywolf: 128 pp., $14 paper