Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 128 pages; 2015.
Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers recently won the 2016 Dylan Thomas Prize. This prestigious award is granted annually to the best published literary work (in the English language) written by an author aged 39 or under.
I read it for my book group (which explains why this is the first book by a non-Australian I’ve reviewed all year; I haven’t abandoned #ReadingAustralia2016, in case you were wondering), but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the meeting. Which is a shame, because I suspect this is the kind of book that would really benefit from discussion it’s so brimful of (sometimes puzzling) ideas and evocative descriptions of love and death and marriage and parenthood. And its literary “tricks” —passages that read like poetry, bits that evoke the atmosphere of a forbidding fable, the fragmentary nature of the narrative and prose littered with metaphors and idioms — are discussion worthy too.
A curious tale
At just 128 pages in length, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a curious little novella, which tells the story of a young widower left to raise two young boys. Four or five days after the unexpected death of his wife, the doorbell rings. When “Dad” answers it, there is no-one there, but he is assailed by a terrible stench.
There was a crack and a whoosh and I was smacked back, winded, onto the doorstep. […] I opened my eyes and it was still dark and everything was crackling, rustling.
[…] Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor.
The crow says to Dad: “I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.” And therein the bird, an obvious metaphor for grief, moves in to the family home and makes a nuisance of himself. He’s scary, untamable, rather forbidding. His very presence is startling and deeply unsettling, and that’s reflected in the mood of the book, which feels like part meditation on grief, part Gothic fairy tale.
But there’s slightly more going on here, because Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar, and Ted Hughes, the British poet and husband of Sylvia Plath, once wrote a rather famous poetry collection called Crow, published in 1972, that is said to be ripe with mythology and history. I’ve not read Crow, so I’m inclined to think that most of the references — I suspect they’re dotted throughout this novella, much like moulting feathers on an aviary floor (see what I did there?) — went over my head.
While it initially starts off full of clichés (the seven phases of grief, the hot food coming from neighbours and all the usual things that happen to the family left behind when someone dies), it then morphs into something wholly original, full of rich vivid imagery and rhetorical effects.
Having taken it on face value and seen it as a story about unexpected loss, I thought it was an interesting, hypnotic read (it feels very much like poetry in places). It was occasionally dark and terrifying but also grimly funny. But I felt I might have understood it slightly better if I was familiar with Ted Hughes’ poetry.
So, as much as I enjoyed this short foray into a fable-like world, I didn’t love it. But if you’re up for something a little different, or have experienced loss in your own life, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is sure to resonate.
UPDATE 6 NOVEMBER 2016
This is my 1st book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward