Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

~ Emily Dickinson

This poem was the first thing I thought of when I saw Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, and upon brief reflection I really liked it. If you replace ‘hope’ at the beginning of the poem with ‘grief’ it still makes sense, and actually I think I might prefer it to Dickinson’s original.

Grief is one of those nebulous emotions that defies definition. All of us live with it differently, and how it manifests itself depends on a multitude of things: not only the obvious ones like how close we were to the person we’ve lost, but also what else is going on around us at the time, and how we’re approaching it.

In 2015 I wrote a novel about grief called The Pause. It wasn’t quite right. There was something about it that didn’t work. Bits of it were good, I thought, but a lot of it wasn’t, and so it was hardly surprising when it got rejected. Reading Grief Is The Thing With Feathers made me think about it again, and I wonder whether I tried to make The Pause too long. Max Porter’s book is very short – not only is it just 114 pages long, but bits of it are written like poetry, and some pages have no words on them, or very few.

The blurb:

Once upon a time there was a crow who wanted nothing more than to care for a pair of motherless children…

In a London flat, two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother’s sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness.

In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow – antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This sentimental bird is drawn to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him.

If you’re not aware of Ted Hughes, he was a 20th-century English poet who was married to Sylvia Plath. Following her suicide, he wrote a series of poems that were published as a book called Crow: From The Life and Songs of the CrowCrow stands out among Hughes’ work because it’s darker and more visceral than his previous style. The poems are at times disturbing to read, but in a way that feels appropriate. After all, in the words of Cesar A. Cruz,

Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is reminiscent of Hughes’ Crow but very much a work in its own right. It’s a strange little book and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting after reading the blurb. I don’t think I can say much more than that without giving the game away, but suffice it to say that if you enjoy slightly disturbing books that make you think, you’ll probably enjoy this one. I can’t quite believe Porter managed to get it published as a debut novel, but I’m glad he did and I’m looking forward to reading more of his books in the future.

P.S. If you haven’t read Ted Hughes’ work, I don’t think it matters. Grief Is The Thing With Feathers stands as a book in its own right. If you’re familiar with Hughes’ work, though, it does add an extra dimension to the reading.


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