GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS BY MAX PORTER: A playfully profound novel-poem, whose point is paradox

by Georgia Watts

I’m always on the look-out for writers who push the boundaries when it comes to form, and as I quickly leafed through the pages of Max Porter’s debut novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber & Faber, 2015), in Blackwell’s on Broad Street, Oxford, I knew that I had found one. The book is predominantly written in prose, which in style is both naturalistic – I found the children’s narrative to be weirdly reminiscent of James Joyce’s Dubliners(1914) in places – and surrealist, effortlessly slipping in and out of the fantastical in the kind of nonchalant manner that Leonora Carrington tends towards in The Hearing Trumpet (1976). Yet Porter’s prose is peppered with a poetic quality, which becomes especially apparent in Crow’s nonsensical narrative stints, wherein he often makes use of cacophonous diction to aurally bring the bird to life. Such a combination makes the novel formally unusual, but it is Porter’s keen sense of the power of the spatial that makes its form truly unique; the book features numerous increasingly-indented lines, is filled with multiple blank pages, representing those moments when grief engulfs and words become impossible or at the very least superfluous and powerless, and often formats prose as if it were verse. The narrative is continually in a kind of formal flux, with readers sure only in their unsureness as to what they should expect as they turn the page, chaotically capturing the ever-changing nature of grief and how it is experienced.

The narrative is continually in a kind of formal flux, with readers sure only in their unsureness as to what they should expect as they turn the page

Whilst it is probably clear by now that I am a great admirer of Porter’s ingenuity when it comes to how he constructed his novel, I will not pretend that it made for a particularly enjoyable reading experience. His writing is wonderfully pithy, and its brevity breeds much of its beauty and poignancy. But continually hopping from different character’s POVs (alternating between Dad, Boys and Crow) as Porter impressionistically tells a story of a Ted-Hughes-scholar father and two young boys who have lost their mother, and are consequently visited by a Crow who promises to help them until he is no longer needed, gives an impression of frustrating brevity. Maybe such hopping is intentional – crows are accomplished hoppers after all – but character development feels undeniably stunted every time we switch from character to character. The novel’s strength is also its weakness, then: its conciseness helps it to aggressively avoid stuffy and sentimental depictions of mourning, but it also leaves one wanting, and perhaps with a bit of a headache.  

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter named as the winner of the 10th International Dylan Thomas Prize, in partnership with Swansea University.

This paradox is probably Porter’s point, though. At the heart of the novel is a point-blank refusal to portray grief in a formally coherent, fluently articulated manner. This would be unrealistic and, more importantly, dishonest. Whilst this admittedly makes the novel difficult to read, I delight in any book that formally fits its subject perfectly, and this one certainly does. It is one of those books that, on the whole, is fantastic to reflect upon and talk about with other people, but not so fantastic to actually read – but this does not mean that it isn’t worth reading. On the contrary, it is skilfully-written (my head was filled with thoughts of how Max Porter must be a genius every other page), and conveys emotion in a raw and potent way. Indeed, it is telling that, despite feeling that the characters were merely ciphers throughout the course of the novel, disappointingly vague in their delineations, the final page managed to move me to tears, with the boys ‘a tide-wall of laughter and yelling, hugging my [the father’s] legs, tripping and grabbing, leaping, spinning, stumbling, roaring, shrieking and the boys shouted I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU’ as they scatter their mother’s ashes. Here, Porter beautifully captures life’s unruly fluctuations and the futility of human attempts to tame such chaos, or to believe they can think or say or do something that will be sufficient, that will not pass away. But within such commotion, there is inherent comfort: it is ‘Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything.’ A paradoxical conclusion, then, where oscillation and permanence collide to create something fragile and lasting.

I’m not sure I’ve read anything like Max Porter’s book before. It stunned me, full of beauty, hilarity, and thick black darkness. It will stay with me for a very long time.

Evie Wyld