In a post about how we grieve, the popular Brain Pickings blogger Maria Popova rightly remarked, “Ours is a culture that treats grief – a process of profound emotional upheaval – with a grotesquely mismatched rational prescription.” While the post had moving snippets from Meghan O’Rourke’s book on grief, The Long Goodbye, Popova’s observation is relevant for another book as well.

Given the multi-fractal nature of our individual selves, our perception, comprehension, and relationship with grief is wildly unique – and for the most part, agonizingly inarticulate. While bereavement researchers have studied and re-studied human grief, and culture and religion have offered only a shaky foundation upon with one can mourn before “moving on”, it is still a deeply personal matter that may have a common denominator across individuals, but no common cure. In his shatteringly stunning debut novel Grief is a Thing with Feathers, Max Porter almost succeeds in distilling a grieving family’s expression of loss.

For four or five days after his wife’s death, the husband (Dad) sits around the house wondering what to do. His twins (the Boys) know “something was up” but they can’t get straight answers to “Where’s Mum?” It is then that a crow, aptly called Crow, arrives knocking at their house and declares, “I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.”

This novel lightly delves into how the family feels about this loss. While Dad fails to cope with his pain, the Boys (always narrated as one voice) watch their father became a different kind of dad, and Crow becomes whatever they want him to be, depending on their frequency of grief.

“We can do things characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets, and have theatrical battles with language and god.”

— Crow

Max Porter explores this family’s melancholic journey in a slightly off-beat manner. His novel is an amalgamation of prose, poetry, dialogue, lists, metaphor, and even a plain ripping open of the heart. Taking the name and epigram of the novel from the poet of grief, Emily Dickinson, Porter starts off high, and for the love of all things good, he surpasses expectation. Dickinson is not the only poet he works into his novel. There’s Ted Hughes and his poetry, which finds its way as a major theme in the overall plot, if I may call it a plot.

A strange and sublime telling

Split three ways, this novel, narrated by three voices, is as easy to read as a children’s book. However, what strikes the reader is the exquisite construction of various incidents and expressions that embody their pain. Boys fight, hurt each other, relay lessons given to them by their Mum, and break things to let their father know of their loss. Dad says how much he misses his wife, over and over. Crow watches over them, tells them stories, kraws, and kraws, and kraws. Max Porter’s stark clarity of language sears through the heart. The simplicity of stating a fact such as this:

She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).
She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).
And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.
I will stop finding her hairs.
I will stop hearing her breathing.

By employing Crow as the caretaker of the bereaved family, Porter does what many authors, storytellers, religions, and tribals have done – use the bird to represent a dichotomous and often conflicting state of affairs. As most folklore goes, the crow was once a beautiful bird with a lovely voice, but it was stripped off its colours and voice, which were replaced with the blackness and shrillness as we know now.

On the one hand Crow represents punishment, but on the other, it is hailed as the messenger from the other side of the world. Is that why Dad does not put up a fight when Crow arrives with his “rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible-food, and moss, and leather, and yeast”? Maybe so. Or maybe because Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar trying to finish his analysis of Hughes’s collection of poems titled Crow.

Interestingly, Dad’s book is titled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis, and the couch is where Crow finds itself for the remainder of the days. Whatever it may be, we know that after Crow arrives Dad sleeps and dreams of afternoons in a forest.

Can words do justice?

The treatment works like a charm for the subject matter at hand. Porter has said that the Boys’ loss comes from his own personal encounter with grief when he lost his father at the age of six. Also, Dad’s loss of his wife and writing of his book on Ted Hughes are a parallel drawn to when Hughes started writing poems around the crow after Sylvia’s death.

Putting together all these scraps of manifestation of loss, one wonders how to accurately say one’s heart is broken. Is it going to make sense? Are the words going to do justice? Have the researchers found a way to manufacture catharsis? They haven’t. So why just prose? Why just poetry? Why just one ritual such as paper burning to honour the dead before we move on? Why not everything?

Max Porter did not stop to ask, but he just went ahead and did it. The result is an airy fabric of grief punctuated by utter sadness that drips from the pages, and due to its compelling representation radiates an incandescent beauty. There is such an honesty to this book, it makes re-reading almost inevitable. There is the beauty of words gliding across a page and say things you have always felt but never verbalised. For though we may not have a common expression for grief, somewhere deep down it all feels the same.

Grief is the thing with many books

It takes just a little bit of poking around to find literature on grief. Meghan O’Rourke and Cheryl Strayed have both written extensively trying to make sense of their respective mothers’ death. Ted Hughes wanted his collection of poems, Crow, to be a re-imagining of the Book of Genesis following the death of his wife, but stopped after the death of his mistress Assia Wevill and their four-year-old daughter Shura.

David Grossman wrote Falling out of Time as a work of mourning for his son’s death in the Lebanon war. Refusing Heaven, a collection of poems by Jack Gilbert, explores mortality and the death of his wife Michiko Nogam in ways that very few writers can.

Although Max Porter has not written this book to explore bereavement, he does a splendid job of enunciating what people know of and feel of death. And he doesn’t make it sound easy. Nor does he provide a “mismatched rational prescription” for it. He understands that it’s not something from which one can casually step aside when he writes:

Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush.

It’s so intensely overwhelming that writers over the years have tried to capture the essence of grief. And sometimes they have come close to placing a gentle finger on its throbbing vein. In Grief Is The Thing With Feathers Max Porter may have come the closest.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, Max Porter, Faber.