A woman dies suddenly. Her husband and two young sons are paralyzed by pain and disbelief. Four or five days after her death, when the stream of mourners has drifted away, an enormous crow appears at their door.
Thus begins Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, the remarkable new book by British writer Max Porter. Surreal, sometimes disorienting and sharply emotionally resonant, it is a beautifully written distillation of the experience of shocking loss.
This is the debut book by Porter, who worked as a bookseller before becoming an editor for Granta Books in London. There's no way to make an elevator pitch for Grief, no one-sentence description or familiar niche to wedge it into.
Its jacket calls it a novel, but at just over 100 small-format pages it feels more like a novella or long short story. Parts of it are poetry, others read like the script of a play or a grim fairy tale. It's told in short chapters in three alternating voices: the Dad, the Boys and Crow. But its shifting forms, its beak-by-jowl juxtapositions of the quotidian and the hallucinatory, render perfectly the bafflement of extreme grief, which can never be anticipated, only survived.
The Dad can't accept his wife is dead: "We were smack bang in the middle, years from the finish, taking nothing for granted." For him, their house "becomes a physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers," where everything — a cheeky note, a novel she was in the middle of, a strand of her hair — is unbearably sad.
The Boys (differentiated only as older and younger) are stunned that normal life goes on at all after such loss. "There should be men in helmets speaking a new and dramatic language of crisis. There should be horrible levels of noise, completely foreign and inappropriate for our cosy London flat." Instead, they wear their pajamas all day and "people visited and gave us stuff."
And then there is Crow. His size and form shift, from a huge feathery mass with "a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast," to a humanlike creature who curls up in an armchair and reads memoirs — or a warrior who vanquishes demons. His language ranges from erudite philosophical ramblings to jet-black comedy to stream-of-consciousness passages that are startlingly suggestive of how a nonhuman species might think.
As Crow says, "I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter." Add to that Jungian archetype and mythical trickster figure from cultures around the globe — and, in some ways, actual bird.
Grief is nested in literary allusions. Its title is a dark twist on one of Emily Dickinson's poems, which begins:
"Hope" is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
Crow evokes his corvid cousin in Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, although this bird has a much larger vocabulary (not to mention a sense of humor). Most importantly for the Dad, he's a reference to The Life and Songs of the Crow, a strange and powerful collection of poems by Ted Hughes, longtime British poet laureate best known as the husband, then widower, of American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath.
Hughes published The Life and Songs of the Crow in 1970, seven years after Plath's storied suicide. It's a book the Dad was writing about (and obsessed with) before his wife's death — as a literary scholar, he insists, not in the interest of "Ted & Sylvia archaeology."
Those literary allusions enrich Grief, but it stands without them as well — the reader need not ever have heard of Dickinson or Hughes to feel its emotional dive and soar. It's a novel about grief that in some ways mocks the traditional novel about grief:
"How physical my missing is," the Dad says. "I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.
“Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet."
And yet. As Crow tells him in the book's first pages, "I won't leave until you don't need me anymore."
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.