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Grief is the Thing with Feathers Review

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

I first encountered this book as I was choosing something to display in the bookstore I work at. I perused a list of titles and when I saw Grief is the Thing with Feathers I knew I had to see what a book with a title like that looked like. I went over to the shelf and found a slim volume with a striking minimalist cover dominated by grey and yellow with three windows and a crow. It didn’t last long on the display. In a couple of days I was carrying it home with me.


The most simplistic way to look at the plot would be that the characters of the novel, a father and two boys, deal with the death of the mother/wife character that occurs before the beginning of the narrative. This seems like a simple enough thing, despite the emotional complexity there’s room for, the book could almost seem like a dull or depressing prospect on the surface. That would be an incredibly inaccurate assessment.


As soon you reach past the title page you see that this book will be very different. The entire thing is divided into three different perspectives. That of the Boys, Dad, and another agent, Crow. The first section we read from Dad begins fairly prosaic in many ways. He is drained from the funeral and all the formalities and social interactions that surround so many of our rituals of death. At the end of this first portion we are introduced to the character who makes this book so wild, Crow. He is an otherworldly being that comes to help the Boys and Dad deal with their grief. I think he describes himself best in this passage early on in the book:

In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, dues ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst, and babysitter. (pg. 15)


At times he seems to play tricks on them. He seems indifferent to their pain as he drags them onwards through life. Yet he protects them from things as well. Quite literally in one passage wherein he viciously attacks a demon that wishes to feed on the grief of the Boys and Dad (pg. 54-58). At other times, he seems tenderer than any human could ever hope to be.


During all of this the structure of the book is dynamic. If you are willing to sink into it; it’s incredibly rewarding. Some parts of the book look more like poetry than a part of a novel. Others jump forward in time or backward. Some tell stories that are related to the narrative in content, but are entirely made up. There are dreams and meanderings and all the while you, the reader, are engaged on an incredibly deep level with the emotions of the Boys and Dad. All the while, you are learning with them how to deal with a loss you come to feel along with them. Crow provides different paths for each of them because each of them deal with this loss in different ways.


Eventually the Boys and Dad don’t need Crow anymore. They have moved through their processes of sorrow and Crow can move on now. Perhaps he will go to another group of people in need, perhaps he doesn’t need to. Crow is mysterious and wonderful that way. The Boys and Dad illustrate beautifully how far they have come under the guidance of Crow by spreading the mother’s ashes, exclaiming: “I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU/ and their voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything” (pg 114).

I read this book in just a little over an hour. I didn’t intend to, but once I began I found that

I could not stop. The book was an experience to say the least. Engrossing, immersive, uplifting, bizarre in the best way, lyrical. When I finished, I felt that I had been standing on a shore, the tide had come up to my neck, and then subsided suddenly.

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