Beyond Poe and Lovecraft: Scary Stories by Not-White Guys

The end of October means the approach of Halloween, which means that in the book-reading corner of the Internet, everyone is sharing their favorite creepy reads. In this as in most other areas of Western culture, white dudes comprise a disproportionate part of the feted canon. It’s not that writers like Poe, Lovecraft, Stephen King and Wilkie Collins (to name but a few) aren’t good; they absolutely are. But the problem is that any fool can find them. Making a list with these guys on it isn’t exactly hard. It’s not like people of colour have never written ghost stories, so why don’t they get onto lists? Herewith, nine of the creepiest, most supernatural books by black American, black African, South American and Native American writers. I’ve tried to stick with ones that I’ve read, or at least ones by authors whose other work I’ve read, but I’d love any additional recommendations, particularly by Asian authors…

Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Obviously. A baby murdered by her mother to save her from a life of slavery haunts the family that she never knew. A classic, and skin-crawlingly scary to boot: it’s not so much the supernatural elements, more the knowledge that the horrors of slavery that Morrison’s heroine Sethe lives through were real.

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri. Set in colonial Nigeria, this novel won the 1991 Booker Prize and is the story of a “spirit-child”, Azaro, who tries to break a promise to the spirit world. The way that our physical reality slips and slides into a metaphysical reality is where Okri derives the creepiness.

The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi. In a similar vein, The Icarus Girl is about a little girl, Jessamy, from a biracial family, who discovers that her new best friend, TillyTilly, might be more than imaginary, and less than well-meaning. As a writer, Oyeyemi’s interest in the sinister potential of tradition and folk tale to shape our lives has continued to develop–her most recent novel, Boy Snow Bird, transplants that interest to New England.

Fledgling, by Octavia Butler. It is about a young black amnesiac female vampire, I don’t know what else you can possibly want. (Oh: polyamory. There’s also polyamory.)

Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston lived in Haiti and participated in voodoo ceremonies there, which she wrote about in this book. Atmospheric, accurate, and utterly without voyeurism—Hurston wasn’t just observing, but taking part—it’s dark and fascinating.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola. I’m not sure why Gabriel Garcia Marquez has such a monopoly on “magical realism”, because the African writers on this list are chock-full of it. Tutuola’s novella draws on Yoruba folk legend to tell the story of an alcoholic trawling the realms of the dead for his long-lost bartender, and meeting some rather horrible people along the way.

The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende. An epic of a witchy family in Latin America over three generations; like One Hundred Years of Solitude, but without the passivity of the inhabitants of Macondo, and with more interesting women.

Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. The story of Robert Johnson, supposedly the world’s greatest blues guitarist, who was said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play, drives this haunting, heartbreaking novel about a group of guys (and two girls) from a Native American reservation who decide to form a rock band. You could call this magical realism too: Johnson and Big Mom, the local medicine woman/facet of Godhead, slide in and out of the story, although our protagonists are mostly pretty firmly planted in the real world. (Read this even if you’re not interested in a creepy/magical/supernatural Halloween-y type experience. It’s an exceptional book.)

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. A Kafkaesque black comedy about a man who claims, out of exasperation with his neighbors, to be a wizard, only to find that he’s threatened the supremacy of his homeland’s tinpot dictator. The weird, shifting realities in this book mirror the horrors of Beloved: this stuff is scary not because it’s supernatural, but because it actually, unbelievably, happens.

I’m moving to London (at last!) on Saturday, and packing all this week, so I may not see you back here before end-of-the-month superlatives. If not, I hope you have a safe and hyperglycemic Halloween.

May the Grand Pumpkin visit you all.

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Landfalls, by Naomi J. Williams

Monsieur de Langle turned to me and said, Take a good look, Vaujuas, remember everything—when we get back to Europe this will all seem a dream.

It seems pretty unfair to refer to Landfalls as a debut novel. Naomi J Williams spent ten years researching and writing it; by the end of a decade, your familiarity with your subject and your facility at writing about it will have improved markedly. On the other hand, having poured so much of your life into your first novel must make you pretty nervous about its reception. Williams ought not to worry, though; Landfalls has been getting spectacular reviews, and for good reason. It’s an amazingly confident novel that acts as a prism for a dozen different characters’ voices. Her research is lightly worn but thoroughly applied–always an impressive feat for historical fiction. She’s funny and poignant by turns. Many of the novel’s interrelated chapters force us to think deeply about how and why we give credence to certain ways of interpreting events while dismissing or downplaying others, but Landfalls is much more than an undergraduate exercise in unreliable narration. Indeed, the unreliability is not so much the point; it doesn’t matter that different versions of events are presented, because an authoritative narrative isn’t the aim. Williams is producing something almost pointillist, a proliferation of stories and lives that suggests the ripple effect of events. Some of the most affecting chapters aren’t set on board the ships of the Lapérouse expedition that forms the novel’s backbone, or even told by expedition members; instead, they show us how these Frenchmen circumnavigating the globe have an impact on everyone they meet, from the wife of a provincial governor in California to an unnamed indigenous girl in Alaska.

It’s really, really hard not to bash your reader over the head with the fruits of your historical research. Williams manages it with a facility I haven’t seen in a contemporary writer since Hilary Mantel. Although the psychologies of her eighteenth-century France are less deeply plumbed than those of Mantel’s Tudor court, they’re just as nuanced. The opening chapter, in which Paul-Mérault de Manneron, the expedition’s naval engineer, is sent on a clandestine trip to London for maritime gear and advice, sets the tone perfectly. The period details are all there–the inconvenient length of coach journeys, the inclement weather on the Channel crossing, the uncomfortable lodgings and poor food–without seeming forced or artificial. Likewise, the rhythms of eighteenth-century thought are captured without resorting to pastiche. Lapérouse, who commands the expedition, thinks longingly and fondly of his wife Éléonore–he’s a good husband–but it’s clear that, though his affection is real, she’s much younger than he. There is no overt racism towards the indigenous peoples they encounter, at least not among the officers, but when native women are offered, most men do not refuse. Status and legitimacy preoccupy everyone: Lapérouse’s family purchased the surname for him in order to improve his career prospects, while the scientist Lamartiniére is incensed by the failure of everyone he meets to remember his name correctly and to accord him the respect he believes he deserves. Another scientist insists on signing all his letters with the title “Chevalier”.

The book’s emotional range is also impressive. There’s no lack of sardonic humour, although some of its concerns are very serious. Manneron, for instance, has been told to tell anyone who asks him why he’s in London that he’s employed by a Spanish merchant, one Don Inigo Alvarez. He is, understandably, incredulous at the notion that anyone would actually believe this; “It sounds like something out of a play!”, he shouts at the naval minister who instructs him. He’s also shocked that, in England, wearing a sword makes you effeminate, but carrying a beribboned ornamental cane in public does not. But the book is ultimately about a scientific expedition to circumnavigate the globe at a time when such a voyage was incredibly dangerous. There is tragedy aplenty in Landfalls: two longboats are lost in a freak tidal accident; a landing party is clubbed and stoned to death by indigenous islanders; a ship’s chaplain wanders off to botanize and is found with his head bashed in. These aren’t spoilers; we know, for instance, that Lamanon will die on a beach at the hands of Pacific Islanders at the very beginning of chapter two, for at the moment that Williams introduces him, she tells us, casually, precisely how long he has left to live. She deserves praise for making us feel these deaths as deeply as her characters do. Lapérouse is devastated, for instance, by the loss of the longboats, and cannot write the condolence letters that it is his duty to compose; Langle, the second-in-command, gazes out of his cabin window and realizes that he cannot predict every direction from which disaster could strike. Flitting back and forth between the minds of the two men, we gain sympathy for both of them, but we’re never allowed to become locked in to just one point of view.

The obvious strength of this approach is that it lets us view the expedition from many angles, including through the eyes of those affected by it. A young Inuit girl in Alaska narrates one chapter. She’s not presented as an exotic native specimen, but a fleshed-out human with interests and concerns that have nothing to do with the white men. Her cousin, who’s also her betrothed, has just died; she may have to marry his younger brother, who annoys her; the arrival of the Frenchmen is simply one incident in her life, not necessarily the defining one, and nothing much even happens when they do arrive. I appreciated that chapter as much for what it didn’t say as for what it did. I also appreciated that Williams makes it this way because it accords with the voice of the character; other indigenous women, such as the Siberian tribeswomen that the expedition’s Russian translator Barthelemy de Lesseps encounters, are silent, cheerful, and sexually licentious, and they are partly this way because we see them through de Lesseps’s eyes. He’s a good man but bounded by his time, and it would be too much to expect him to understand the contingent nature of the womens’ affection. Likewise, he fails to understand the nature of the love that his Russian guide, Goliakoff, has for him. The reader understands, though, and aches both for Goliakoff, who will never see Lesseps again, and for Lesseps, whose fear for his shipmates’ safety is somewhat assuaged by Goliakoff’s friendship, and who might have been better equipped to cope with his loneliness had he only realized what was available to him.

The proliferation of viewpoints is also deployed within chapters, to create uncertainty. Texts are written by more than one person, or testimony is given by contradicting witnesses. An officer is ordered to write a report on a disaster, and is paralyzed by the task; Lapérouse writes draft after abortive draft of his condolence letters; Lamanon composes missives to scientific contacts back in France which never arrive, or which are left unopened on a desk. Communication is consistently figured as fraught, disappointing, impossible. It’s one of the aspects of living in the past that I consider the most distressing: not being sure whether your words have reached someone else, or ever will. High Modernism taught us that no one speaks precisely the same language as someone else, so communication will be contingent no matter how advanced our technology becomes, but having to physically wait, sometimes for years, to know whether your son or husband or father is still alive must have been beyond nervewracking. In Chile, Lapérouse knows that he may not hear from his wife again until he reaches Macao. That’s a sail of nearly two years. In such a world, and even further bounded, most of the time, by deck, sea and sky, no wonder most attempts at conveying information seem to be stymied.

In Landfalls, Williams reclaims the emotional possibilities of the adventure-at-sea. Previously these have mostly been explored by male authors: Patrick O’Brian, for instance, whose Aubrey and Maturin novels beautifully evoke the deep brotherhood of seafaring men, or William Golding, whose Rites of Passage and its sequels show us the darker, crueller side of a claustrophobic life on board. It’s rare territory for a woman–quite possibly because there are supposed to be so few women in these maritime worlds, let alone writing about them–and Williams demonstrates to perfection that it needn’t be. Landfalls is one of those rare books that would make a very good Christmas present for nearly anyone; with the present-buying season upon us, I hope its sales figures benefit. It’s an evocative, intelligent, wonderful book.

Many thanks to Poppy at Little, Brown for the review copy!

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada

I would gladly give up my wretched life if this perfect woman were to become a reality.

Here’s a challenge to aspiring writers: make the first character your readers meet a lunatic confessional astrologist painter whose last will and testament includes the details of a plot to murder his six virginal daughters and nieces and dismember their bodies in order to create a perfect woman. Give him some creepy backstory–let’s say he tells us about this one time when he literally fell in love with a mannequin in a shop window, and maybe throw in a suggestion of rape when he talks about how he ended up with his second wife. Add a touch of megalomania. Then have the whole thing translated into another language, preferably one with a different alphabet from your own. See how many of your readers are sticking around after all that.

That’s a little unfair on Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, I know; it’s a complicated plot, it’s translated, and of course characters don’t have to be likeable. The book does suffer a little bit from having its prologue delivered through the artist (and first murder victim) Heikichi, though. If you can get through it, you can probably get through the rest, but it’s a bit of a litmus test.

We learn that Heikichi was murdered before he could carry out his horrible scheme–he was found with his head bashed in, inside a locked room–but shortly after his death, his eldest stepdaughter was found dead in what was assumed to be a rape and burglary gone wrong, and then his other six daughters disappeared. Their dismembered bodies were discovered over a period of several months all around Japan’s Hoshu island, arranged just as Heikichi’s note had described. Clearly, someone decided to carry out the plans after Heikichi’s death–but everyone has an alibi and there’s no clear motive. The murders remain unsolved for forty years, until our two intrepid amateur detectives decide to try and crack the case, mostly in order to distract one of them from his chronic depression. The novel is in the honkaku subgenre of Japanese mysteries: you get all the clues in the same order and at the same time as the two detectives, so you can follow along, trying to solve it as they do. Honkaku are kind of like literary sudoku, in that they’re puzzles. You’re engaging not only your narrative brain, but your logical one.

I think mysteries suffer with age, more than other genres. Possibly this is because so many of them deal with crimes against the vulnerable, and the way that we treat victims and think about them has changed so much over the past few decades. This book was written in 1980, and one of the most noticeable things about it is the sheer quantity of bullshit about “female psychology”. There is even the suggestion that the killer must have been a woman because the murder weapon was cleaned off, and that would be “more natural” for a woman to do (because ladies can’t stop themselves from tidying up!) The gender politics when it comes to the actual murders are just as depressing. Our narrator, Ishioka, announces at one point that the murderer must have been a man (he’s changed his mind since the scene mentioned above), because (dun duh duhhhh), “Kazue had been raped!” The response of Kiyoshi, the novel’s Sherlock Holmes character is, literally, “Uhhh…” This, and scenes like it, conspire to suggest that the actual reality of torture, murder, rape and dismemberment doesn’t interest Shimada at all, except insofar as these events can be used to make a good puzzle. I’m perfectly willing to accept that this is a matter of personal taste, but that attitude is really, really not for me. I like the idea of murders that are logic puzzles, but I want them to remain logic puzzles. Making truly horrible things happen to someone that you’ve established is a character, not a philosophical construct, just to make your clever-clogs challenge a bit more cryptic, strikes me as being somewhere between distasteful and genuinely psychopathic. As I read, I kept thinking of all the women in literature (especially genre literature) and film and popular culture who have been found chopped up in trash bags, in Satanic rituals, in rivers, in car trunks. And I thought of all the women in real life–the world I live in–who’ve been found the same way. And somehow I couldn’t take quite the innocent joy in a complex mystery that I think I was expected to take.

All the more frustrating, then, that by the middle of the book I was genuinely (if begrudgingly) keen to find out who had done the deeds. The puzzle element of the book works just fine; the solution is clever, although the identity of the murderer is obscurely disappointing, mostly because the motive is so meh. Revenge, revenge, does it ever get old? (Yes. Also, it would have been better had the murderer sought revenge on someone who had legitimately wronged them, as opposed to someone whose primary crime was to be immature and self-centered, but now we’re venturing into spoilers territory.) I was also both fascinated and frustrated by the way some details were explained profusely, while others–fairly important ones–were brushed over. The reason why the bodies were found buried at different depths, for instance, took pages; but when our narrator Ishioka explicitly asks questions like “Where did the poison come from?” and “How did the murderer chop up half a dozen bodies on their own? How did they even get hold of a saw?”, Kiyoshi’s answer was “They just did.” It’s hard not to admire the sheer brazenness of an author who’ll do that to you, but it does feel like a cop-out.

It’s a shame about this, because the book is part of Pushkin’s new Vertigo imprint, and usually Pushkin is absolutely spot on. They’ve already made a name for themselves with translated literary fiction, and moving into translated crime is a brilliant idea. I’m guessing that The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is a one-off. I’ve already heard good things about Vertigo, the novel that inspired Hitchcock’s films, and Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz, an Austrian novelist. Also, let me emphasize once more that this is entirely my own opinion; just because I have a hard time with novels that feel like diagrams doesn’t mean that everyone does, and as puzzles go, this one is fiendish, complex and probably quite satisfying. It wasn’t for me, but I’d love to have a look at some of the other Vertigo titles and see if one of them is.

Marlon James’s Booker win is bloody brilliant news

The best man won, y’all. I don’t think anyone is seriously disputing that. Here’s why:

1. A Brief History of Seven Killings is simply an amazing book: polyphonic, violent, emotive, compassionate, unsentimental. Other books on the shortlist were similar in length and ambition, but not one of them had the explosive energy of A Brief History, nor the ability to be unceasingly gripping for all of its 700-odd pages.

2. It suggests that the Man Booker Prize isn’t locked in to staid, standard literary realism. Let’s be honest, this has been a worry for a while. When I reviewed A Brief History, I wrote that I wanted it to win, but doubted that it would because the prize seemed too historically conservative to value a novel like this. The fact that this year’s panel proved me wrong is also great for another reason:

3. It will renew general interest in literary culture. I’ve already had a conversation (impassioned, evangelical) with two of my coworkers, both of whom were a) very interested in the book, and b) confessed that they ordinarily avoid Booker winners like the plague. If this year’s panel had tried, they couldn’t have done better at announcing that the stereotypical insularity of British literary culture needed a shake-up.

The diversity point seems too much like tokenism to mention, but it does please me hugely that another Commonwealth writer has won, and a writer, moreover, who is not interested in the white, middle-class concerns typical of longlisters like Andrew O’Hagan, Bill Clegg and (dare I say it) Anne Tyler. The world wants more varied stories, and there are more varied stories out there to be told. It’s delightful to see the literary establishment finally acknowledging that.

Also, this whole scenario tickles me for some reason. Maybe it’s because his hairband matches her shawl. 

I reviewed A Brief History of Seven Killings in August; you can read what I thought of it here.

I am in blood stepp’d in so far…

I went to see the new film of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, with Papa Bear last week. It’s not a play that I feel very personally about (although my brilliant little brother has played Macbeth, and has helped me to understand the text better through his performance). So I had few expectations, apart from hoping to be dazzled and provoked. Both of these things happened, and I’m still trying to figure out how and why I felt as I did about the whole film, so I thought I’d expand my remit a bit to talk about it here.

Negatives first: my major issue with this film was that the language seemed basically secondary. The cool thing about Shakespeare is that you can put all sorts of window dressing on it, as long as you don’t add dialogue, so that films of the plays can be visually amazing, with silent scenes and characters that create resonance or suggest motive. The downside of that is that the language can easily become less and less important, as the stuff you’re being shown sidelines the stuff you’re hearing. Fassbender as Macbeth delivered most of his lines in a sort of mumbling Scottish-tinged monotone, which I actually didn’t mind per se, but in a few places he seemed to have trouble with where the emphases should be. Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth was quite a lot better; she was inexplicable but definitely human (as opposed to a crazed gender-bending monster), which I’ve always considered a more effective approach to her character. She also got a backstory in the form of a silent prologue that showed her and Macbeth burying their baby, which made her line “I know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” a lot easier to understand. The witches also made the monotone thing work; they all looked like terribly sad, average medieval Scottish women, auguries of the kind of pain and suffering that falls, in a war, disproportionately upon people who have nothing to do with the quarrel.

This version also draws out the play’s implications about children. In an excellent echo of Macduff’s wife and children, the witches appeared with two: a silent little girl and then later a baby. When Banquo is killed and his son Fleance runs (in a scene that isn’t staged in the play), it’s the witches’ silent little girl who appears to him and seems to direct him into thin air, where he vanishes.

Poor Lady M.

Fleance comes back in the last scene (a silent one, so also the film director’s interpolation). He takes Macbeth’s sword from the ground outside the city. It’s intercut with shots of Malcolm, now king, standing in his throne room, then starting to walk purposefully towards the doors. Fleance turns and starts walking away; we flit back to Malcolm, who’s moving faster. The next shot we see of Fleance, he’s sped up in response. They both break into a run. The last shot in the movie is Fleance running away from the camera into a blood-colored smoke: a stocky, freckly eight-year-old clutching a huge sword, the sound of his breathing jogging up and down. It ends the film not on the triumphant(-ish) note of the rightful king being crowned, but with the promise of further bloodshed. Even little boys aren’t exempt; it passes the violence down to the next generation, in precisely the same way that Banquo does when he lets Fleance hold his sword (in another scene that isn’t in the play). You can’t know that your children will live by the sword without also knowing that they may die upon it.

In the light of Shakespeare’s other historical plays, particularly Richard II, it’s also interesting for what it says about kingship. There’s no context or background for how Duncan (a cracking David Thewlis, projecting kindliness and weakness) got his crown. Macbeth takes it from him by murdering him, and there’s a bit at his coronation, the anointing, which made me think of Richard’s lines: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off an anointed king.” (Nor the spot from Lady Macbeth’s hand, evidently.) But obviously that’s not true, because even when the supposed balance of nature is restored (with Malcom’s ascension), there’s Fleance to deal with, and the witches have prophesied that he’ll be king someday. I don’t know whether Scottish history proved them right or wrong, or whether this bit has no historical basis at all (knowing Shakespeare, it could be that). Is there even any point, this plot makes us ask, in trying to determine who the “rightful” king is?

Fassbender gettin’ his crazy on

Maybe Macbeth’s crime is not so much that he slew his sovereign as that he slew a guest. When you hosted someone, you were making a promise, not only to not kill them, but to actively protect them. So Lady Macbeth’s furious speech, “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?”, about how he promised her he’d kill Duncan and promise-breakers are the worst, takes on a whole other sort of dramatic irony. In order to keep a private promise to his wife, he’s going to have to break a much more serious, socially binding promise to a man under his protection. It’s for the same reason that the Glencoe Massacre was so infamous: not just that the Campbells killed people, but that they killed people whom they were obligated to protect. They betrayed their trust fully.

For making me think hard about the play and its text and themes, I think the film was worth seeing. It’s curious, though, how much of Shakespeare’s language is simply elided by being able to direct your audience’s attention through a camera shot, or to force a comparison or parallel through colour or lighting. I’ve seen films of Shakespeare that don’t do this so much, and I’ve seen ones that do it a lot; this Macbeth is in the latter camp, and although that doesn’t make it a bad Macbeth, it does make it seem more like a reimagining, and less like an attempt to be faithful to the playtext.

We have a Stone Mattress winner!

The lucky reader is Tarzanman (also winning the prize for Most Amusing Username, so well done.) Congratulations, and enjoy the book—if you post a review of it, be sure to link me to it!

Lovelies who didn’t win, fear not, for I am sure there will be more giveaways to come. Thank you so much for participating! It’s tremendously exciting to watch this blog grow and YOU are helping to make it possible by reading it, which encourages publishers to send me more things.

I’ll have more reviews up for you soon (I just finished A Little Life and feel remarkably positive about it, and I will also soon be reviewing The Tokyo Zodiac Murdersand Naomi J. Williams’s beautiful Landfalls before its publication date on the 22nd.) I also have a Most Thrilling Announcement (well, for a given value of “thrilling”), so keep your eyes peeled for that too.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, by Max Porter

…friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.

Thus does Max Porter describe Crow, an atavistic bird-figure who appears to a grief-stricken man and his two small sons in London as they struggle to cope with the death of the woman who was wife, mother, and whole world to them. There is no explanation for Crow’s appearance, but, like all the best fictional nursemaids, he promises to stay until they don’t need him anymore. Except he is hardly of the gently-mischievous school of Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee; Crow is scatological, messy, crude, and anarchically poetic:

Oi, look, trust me. Did I or did I not faithfully

deliver St Vincent to Lisbon. Safe trip, a bit of liver,

sniff, sniff, fabric softener…Did I or did I not carry the hag

across the river. Shit not, did not. Sing song blackbird

automatic fuck-you-yellow, nasty, pretty boy, joke,

creak, joke, crech, joke. Patience.

He speaks in explosive free verse, and the other narrators of the book, Dad and Boys, also speak in a form laid out like poetry. “Boys” refers to both of the children; they’re a unit, although we know there are two and they’re differentiated in the narrative, one of them older and a little bit cruel, one of them younger and a little bit more vulnerable. It’s never really clear which one is which, though, and one of the sections near the end suggests that the combined narration is designed to throw us off, that both boys are equally vulnerable and equally prone to acting out: “One brother sat quietly inside the brother/bits and tried hard but felt angry. It’s me./I had a difficult few years, now I’m fine,/but I’m quiet and I’m unsentimental…I’m either brother.” Dad is easier to get a handle on: he’s a Ted Hughes scholar, “terminally uncool”, earnest and thoughtful. (“I am trying,” he tells us about halfway through the book, “to entertain the notion of Crow a bit less since I read a book about psychotic delusions.”)

I’ve read Grief Is the Thing With Feathers twice now, and I still don’t know where to start talking about it. It’s the sort of book that both demands to be thought about and makes it difficult to crystallize those thoughts. Noting this on Twitter, I got a reply from Max Porter himself (!), who informed me that coherence is vastly overrated. Good.

It’s never entirely clear what Crow is. Sometimes he seems to be a figment of the father’s imagination, a physical manifestation of his grief, as when the boys think they can overhear the two of them fighting: their father sobbing, the crow crawking. But Crow exists outside of the father, too, because the boys interact with him separately. If he’s a representation of grief, he’s the combined grief of the whole family. At other times, he seems to have an independent existence: he talks about how much he likes waiting for the boys and their father to come home in the evenings, the enjoyable silence of the empty house. He’s mischievous and disgusting. He has his own bad dreams. He defends the children, as well as nettling their father. He’s an emotional gadfly, a bit like Emma Thompson’s character in Love Actually when she orders Liam Neeson, as a griefstruck widower, to buck up: “No one’s ever going to shag you if you cry all the time.”

The father does–metaphorically, at least–cry all the time. The book is painful and gorgeous to read because it’s merciless about grief. Grief hurts like hell. Grief is relentless. Grief is mean. Absolute absence is one of the hardest concepts on earth to get your head around, and Porter evokes it with precision:

She was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.

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

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

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.

The sharpness of pain subsides: in flash-forwards, we learn that the father has a few girlfriends (though he never remarries), that the boys become men with beloveds and children of their own. But the existence of that pain never goes away; it just changes, mutates, and Porter gets that too, the doggedness of the bereaved.

Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.

That surrender to the longevity, the permanence, of grief is all the more beautiful because it’s not really a choice: you can’t decide to stop missing someone. You can only decide how, or whether, to incorporate that missing, that impossible longing, into yourself. The Dad character is heroic not because he’s a perfect father, either before or after his wife’s death (hint: he is categorically not perfect), but because he manages this: the integration of agony into his life.

If this book were just a taxonomy of sorrow and acceptance, it would still be an arresting, impressive book, but it wouldn’t be such a good one. The reason it’s good is because it’s also funny. There’s a story (I won’t quote it here, it’s too good not to be read in context) about the father meeting Ted Hughes as a starstruck young man, which made me squirm and then laugh out loud with joy. The boys are brilliantly outlined: cheeky, vulnerable, half-wild. You get a frisson of alarm at their dangerous games, but you also recognize the parent/child script and its familiarity is amusing:

We balanced on the back of the sofa and/dive-bombed onto the carpet and Dad/shouted You think that doesn’t damage/your knees but it does and when you/are my age you will have serious knee/problems OK, and I will not push you/round in a cart like sad beggars and if you/think I’m lying you should have seen/your grandmother’s knees, ruined…/We stopped listening and kept on leaping.

This is a book about a very twenty-first century family, so there’s not much focus on afterlife. The mother is dead and that’s pretty much all there is; Porter never talks about God, and neither does Crow. But, for my money, the most affecting part of the book (apart from the ending, of course, which I’ll leave to you to read) is when Crow, in his only moment of true mercy, offers the father a glimpse of an answer about where his wife is now. He never claims that it’s a true answer; he simply makes it a possibility, and possibilities lead to hope, and hope is what enables people to integrate grief into their lives.

“If your wife is a ghost, then she is not wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house…”

“No?”

“No. Trust me, I know a bit about ghosts…She’ll be way back, before you. She’ll be in the golden days of her childhood. Ghosts do not haunt, they regress.”

I look at Crow… “Go on then. Tell me.” […]

He sits as still as I have ever seen an un-stuffed animal. Dead still…

“Right… p p p, yes ooh hold on, paradiddle parasaurolophus watch with mother hang on, ignore that, here we go… Playdates! Red Cross building, parquet floor, plimsolls. Brownies. Angel biscuits. Chase, I mean, tag, catch, you know. Rope swings. Her dad’s massive hands. Rock pools (Yorkshire?). Crabbing, nets, sardines, hiding, waiting…”

We sit in silence and I realise I am grinning. I recognise some of it. I believe him. I absolutely blissfully believe him and it feels very familiar.

I once lost someone that I loved to an early and catastrophic death. I don’t know what I believe, but I like, very much, the thought of him back in his childhood, in some small non-literal residual echoing faint sort of way. For its articulation of that idea alone, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is an exceptional, moving book: not easy, but oh, so worth it.

Thanks very much to Faber Books for the review copy!