Book Reviews

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

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.’


Rating: 5/5 stars

Publication Date: 17th September 2015

Page Count: 114 pages

Genre: Psychological / Contemporary


Grief is the Thing with Feathers

‘Let’s leave the feathers where they are and sleep on the floor.’

First published in 2015 by Faber and FaberGrief is the Thing with Feathers is somewhat lyrical, somewhat novel, and completely unique exploration into enduring and accepting the unexpected loss of a loved one. Winner of many awards, including The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, it is Max Porter’s debut novel.

Born in High Wycombe in 1981, Porter’s thougtht-envoking story follows a widower, known simply as Dad, with two young sons (The Boys) and his inherent love for his recently deceased wife and Ted Hughes.

Extremely compressed – barely one-hundred pages in length – and split not only into three sections (A Lick of NightIn Defence of the NestPermission to Leave) but also three narrators, Porter appears very much intrigued by unconventional layouts. With an unpredictable use of white space and different typefaces, he brings together a collection of memories, thoughts and conversations in a curious assemblage. Fragile it may seem, yet its delivery is robust and insightful.

Within its opening pages, we are greeted by a familiar epigraph, known to most as being “Hope” Is The Thing With Feathers by Emily Dickinson. However, all positivity in the selected lines is drawn through, replaced by something crow-related, consuming its original meaning and spitting out a bleak rendition.

Incorporating no chapters, no sound structure or format, this book strips the reader of all conventional means that we normally associate with reading. In a sense, it reminds me of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride in its bizarre, yet novel, take on the experience of writing. Thankfully, however, Porter’s work is far more simplistic and concise in its approach.

Littering text and dialogue in just the right places – snippets of poetry here and there – Grief echoes a dark and twisted children’s fairy-tale, especially when our narrator is Crow‘And the boys cooked Crow in a very hot oven until he was nothing but cells.’ Crow acts as Dad‘s vehicle to overcome his grief, most agreeing that his appearance in their lives is nothing more than the widower’s psyche, allowing him to release his emotions all while keeping tight rein on his real-world tasks. This includes an analysis, entitled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch.

Little is known about our three narrators – DadThe Boys, and Crow. Each with their own personalities, they are more so unreliable than not. Intentionally, Porter has left us with a clear absence of their descriptions. There is no traditional discovery – their name, physical attributes or how they interact with secondary characters are all non-existent. Only vital information is delivered to us and this always revolves around the death of their mother or wife. 

Interestingly, in a previous interview conducted by Frances Gertler for Foyes, Porter discussed how meeting with a friend of his late father, who passed away when he was six-years-old, helped shape the role of Crow

‘The Crow is not Hughes’ Crow, he is Dad’s, the Boy’s, my own, any reader’s, and the bird itself, with all the literary, mythological, ornithological baggage,’ Porter explained. 

Perhaps then, we can take solace in the fact that although this is heart-rending read, there is hope in that Crow can be whatever the reader wishes him to be. For most, he is not so much the epitome of grief but a helpful creature used to combat the darkest moments in our lives. And the concept of hope may also be recognised in that although Dickinson’s words are crossed out in the epigraph, they are not blacked out completely.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an astonishing, mélange hybrid of ideas; a dive into the mind of a grief-stricken father, spiraling and obsessing as a means to combat his feelings and survive. Coated in pathos and delivered so distinctively, it is no wonder this metafictional piece has received all-round acclamation.


About the author

Max Porter’s first novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers won the Sunday Times/Peter, Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year, the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Europese Literatuurprijs and the BAMB Readers’ Award and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. It has been sold in twenty-nine territories. Complicité and Wayward’s production of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers directed by Enda Walsh and starring Cillian Murphy opened in Dublin in March 2018. Max lives in Bath with his family.

Porter’s website can be found here.

His Twitter can be found here.

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