…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. 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!