Sadness has rarely felt as personal or powerful on the page as it does in Max Porter’s life-affirming Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Longlisted for the Guardian first book award and winner of the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize, this is heartache masquerading as a slim book.
A writer with two young boys loses his wife and tries to cope with this profound loss in an apartment in London, while writing a book about the poet Ted Hughes. And as if it has magically sprung from Hughes’ poetry, a crow appears amidst this grieving trio – “antagonist, trickster”, but also acting as their “healer” and caretaker, “a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast”. It’s here to reaffirm that pain becomes more bearable when it is looked at through a darkly comic lens.
The haunting title is a reference to an Emily Dickinson poem, and it’s fitting because Porter flirts with form and style with luminous lucidity throughout this tale. “I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter,” the crow mutters. I can’t think of another debut as playfully moving as this one. Grief is “the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic,” the bird tells us.
Divided into short segments, and each built on fragmented utterances that often read half-formed – much how it feels when sorrow encloses our days and nights in its receptacle when we are suffering. While comparing joy and despair, the poet and lyricist Gulzar had once said that happiness is like a sparkler which only lasts for a brief while, whereas sadness is like incense whose aroma gently wafts through the air and settles around us.
The first thing the crow tells the man when he encounters it in the hallway is “I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.” That doesn’t mean they’ll stop grieving soon, it only means that grief eventually loses its sharp edges one day and its fragrance then becomes a part of the air we breathe. The air that smells like a specific kind of missing.