The form of a Feather

A Review of Max Porter’s Grief is the thing with feathers


This slim work has been prodded and pried open from every angle. If you’ve made it here, to this late and lowly review, I must find something new to say about it.

*Please note; SPOILERS AHEAD!

Porter, a publisher by day, is probably the only author who would have been able to pull something like this off. Grief is a novella at best, scrappy, unfinished, often unintelligible and purposefully babbling at the other end. But, for the grieving, it is true and honest. Grief can feel “gack-pack-nack, the whole place heavy with mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief. Down the dead Mum stairs, plinkety plink”.

Trying to tell a story of grief in a regularly structured novel with character arcs and plot types is wholly inauthentic. This jagged, bleak ‘story’ is a mirror for the grieving to look into and feel less alone. It hints at the stages of grief. For example, bargaining. Crow tells the boys to make a fake Mum and he will bring back the Mum that is the “truest”. They eagerly oblige and beg for their Mum to come back, but of course, Crow can’t do it. In the bargaining stage, a person will do or believe anything, no matter how ridiculous, in order to have their loved-one back.

The stages are not clear cut, though. A person sinks and rises through them like a terrible, everlasting roller coaster. That’s enough ‘poor me’, there are experts who can tell you more about the science of grief than an orphan can.

What strikes me about this book is its form. It has so many elements that it defies them all. It is fiction that is part autobiography with a smattering of poetry and some bizarre meta-fiction parts where the reader is forced to make decisions the character (or more accurately, the author) has refused to make.

For example; Dad realises there are things his wife will never use again. But instead of listing them, he offers a short list in brackets for the reader to choose from. This is a ‘writerly’ practice that I’ve come across in my scouring of the Internet for wisdom and tips to becoming a writer myself. In order to keep the momentum going, the writer does not allow specifics to hold them up. Can’t think of the perfect word? List a few in brackets and decide during the editing process. Except he leaves the final decision up to Reader. What did you notice, Reader, that your dead loved one will never use again?

In all the reviews I’ve found, no-one has discussed the Comprehension Questions. What on Earth was that? Is Crow giving a lesson on grief? Who is supposed to answer them? The Reader, I suppose. So, what are your answers? Did I get it right? Who died? I guess this is part of the experience of grief; unanswered questions, confusion and murky impressions of reality.

There are other moments like this, the brothers tell stories that are “partly true”. You can choose which parts are true for yourself. Crow babbles incoherently, you can assign meaning there if and where you choose.

As an aspiring writer myself, I feel that I have found my ideal book, the style and ‘genre’ I want to emulate, the feeling I want the Reader to have when they put the book down. This is the not-novel, I’ve been wishing I could write. Although, it lacks a hint of something beyond what we can see and feel and know… something of eternity. Do you know where you’re going to?

Early in the novella, Porter says, “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.” And it is true, grief is not something to hurry or deprive yourself of, it is a pool to dive into clothes and all. Things will never be the same, there is no same, no going back to the way things were, there is a gut-wrenching black whole at the centre and we must find a new normal where we can co-exist with our loss.

Death sucks only for those who are left behind. The dead are not grieving. And this is the point where I think Porter’s book falls just a fraction short. Death is rampant and indiscriminate and, of course, inevitable, so what happens after? Do you know where you’re going to? … Do you like the things that life is showing you? (sorry..) Our only solace for the ridiculous pain in this life can be that there is something after it and someone, a Father, who loves us. If there is only death and nothingness, then it is all futile and nothing/no-one is redeemable. That is too bleak for me, even now as I begin grieving once again, to accept.


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