I don’t know who to thank for bringing Max Porter’s book Grief is the Thing with Feathers within my sphere of biblio-senses, but I owe them a lifetime of gratitude. While grief and gratitude may be emotions on opposite ends, I was able to reconcile both in this book — one of the most memorable pieces of literature I’ve ever read.
Grief is fiction, also poetry, centered on the death of “Mum,” whose husband simply called “Dad” and whose children called “Boys” narrate loss and pain in the book. An unexpected character “Crow” also appears consistently, whose presence makes for a sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-profound literary experience.
Through poignant vignettes, Mum’s death is foretold by all three — Dad, the boys and Crow — in varying emotional landscapes, as the small family slowly builds their life without her.
The Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross states that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think it’s safe to say that the characters go through these stages, once you get into the novel’s unconventional but refreshing format.
At the heart of the Grief is its ability to capture the gravity of loss, and put it into words.
Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and glamour of an event like this? Where are the strangers going out of their way to help, screaming, flinging bits of emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment at us to try and settle us and save us? There should be men in helmets speaking a new and dramatic language of crisis.
The boys’ narrative was innocent, infinitely curious about death, its specifics and (always about) Dad. In some ways, it seemed like losing their mother was an easier thing for them than it was for their father’s. They had each other to console and derive comfort from. While they were once accomplices in mischief before their mother’s death, they became great allies in dealing with grief.
Dad on the other hand, was trying to keep it together. He alternates between melancholy, gut-wrenching pain and figuring out how to express missing his wife in tangible forms.
I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.
The story is punctuated by Crow, a character that I struggled to understand throughout the book. The poet Ted Hughes was a constant reference (Dad’s favorite) — it wasn’t until after some research that I understood the Crow and its significance. More than a fictional bird with a dark sense of humor in the book, the name is also the title of Hughes’s literary work following his wife’s (and also poet) Sylvia Plath’s death signifying imaginative freedom and creative energy.
But I care, deeply. I find humans dull except in grief. There are very few in health, disaster, famine, atrocity splendor or normality that interest me (interest ME!) but the motherless children do. Motherless children are pure crow. For a sentimental bird it is ripe, rich and delicious to raid such a nest.
It taunts (and/or cajoles) Dad for the most part: he cries, he writes, he seeks solace from his children, from memory, from spaces in between. He breaks down, he drinks. He is still his boys’ father.
We crept in and the room smelt of rotting mouse and there were ashtrays in the duvet and bottles on the floor. Dad was spread-eagled like a broken toy and his mouth was slack grey and collapsed like a failed Yorkshire pudding.
Dad are you dead? Dad, are you dead?
The book is filled with moments of hindsight, the kind that we wished we had enough time to prepare for in previous days, months and years. Life is rife with incidents that make us want to go back in time, times when we wished we were more present or more generous or more forgiving.
These times couldn’t have been captured more beautifully by Porter, in his intimate portrayal of Dad. I was with him as he slumped through life, marveling at the small things we usually take for granted:
We will never fight again, our lovely, quick, template-ready arguments. Our delicate cross-stitch of bickers.
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.
Along with denial is a kind of acceptance that slowly seeps in, in spite of our hearts’ protests. Still, the process is long.
Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon let no man slow or speed or fix.
The death of a loved one is never an easy thing to accept, but the family of three eventually gets there. As they sprinkled Mum’s ashes in the water, yelling I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU, let it be a reminder to all of us who are still breathing:
Say I love you enough. Say it to the people you care about. Say it to yourself. Say it without hesitation, with the force of all your being. Say it with might, say it with your heart. And while you still have time, show it in the best ways possible.
* * *