Review: Grief Is The Thing With Feathers // An Experiment on Loss

Review by Mary Kat

  • Rating: 😻😻😻/5
  • Recommend for: Fans of experimental, poetic works and those particularly in the mood for a short literary read on grief and loss

Intro

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter is more poem than book. It’s a poetic, bewildering, and experimental novella (or long short story? extended poem?) on the experience of bereavement in a family after the death of a mother. A father and his two boys are joined by a giant crow living out the physical embodiment of their grief.

The novel is slim at only about 114 pages, and most of those pages are only about half-full at that. It’s readable in about a couple hours, but understanding it is a whole other matter. The book is very experimental and probably too smart for me. There are many literary references above my pay grade — the Crow is apparently an allusion to Ted Hughes’ poetry and the title a reference to Emily Dickinson. I am not well read in either, so that’s far over my head. So I took this at face value and tried to feel the emotions of the book, rather than analyzing its references.

SPOILERS AHEAD! CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK.

All The Best

For me, the book was most emotionally resonant with its descriptions of Crow. The heavy, physical weight of grief (Crow) that the family is literally feeling in their home. The senselessness of death reflected by the bizarre, singsong nonsense of Crow’s language. He’s a powerful representation of how bereavement feels — dark, immense, ugly, heavy, and incomprehensible. So all-encompassing that it weighs on your body and lives in your home with you. This book captures that feeling well.

“The terrible years of my life were stained crow.”

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

The characters themselves felt less important. They have almost no characteristics, besides a love of Ted Hughes in the father. The sons are indistinguishable, and they speak with one voice, making them more like a Greek Chorus than realistic boys. Because the characters are so nondescript, the focus is driven back to Crow again. Grief (Crow) is truly the main character of this little poetic novel.

“Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long term project.”

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

There are parts of this book I really enjoyed, most of all Crow’s physical presence. I imagine that I’ll remember Crow as my inner picture of melancholy for a long time. And there were quotes that stuck out to me as so insightful that I had to stop and write them down immediately. They articulated perfectly feelings I’d personally had while grieving, particularly that magical kind of thinking that exists after the loss of a loved one. I think I’ve had this exact feeling in the quote below, but I could have never articulated it so well, clearly, or poignantly as Porter does.

“We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test. We used to think we would both die at the same age she had. We used to think she could see us through mirrors. We used to think she was an undercover agent, sending Dad money, asking for updates. We were careful to age her, never trap her. Careful to name her Granny, when Dad became Grandpa. We hope she likes us.”

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

But overall, I was interested, but not invested in the characters who were no more than rough outlines. There were powerful quotes, but they didn’t add up to a powerful story for me. I found the structure more powerful than the emotions or characters. I was very impressed at Porter’s innovation, but I felt detached from his overall story.

Verdict

So for me personally, this book was like a novelty — interesting to look at, but no lingering emotional impact.

What Next?

  • Although not at all similar in content, the unusual structure of this one reminded me of The House of Leaves, a big experimental book that I read as an ambitious high schooler. The House of Leaves is a strange literary horror novel that incorporates all matter of books-within-a-book, meta-commentary, and runaways fonts that dance every way across the page. Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is a milder version of that design, but both use their experimental structure to spin on a typical story. For The House of Leaves, that base story is a haunted house. For Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, it is the loss of a loved one.
  • The Friend by Sigrid Nunez is another slim but powerful literary novel on grief. It is not experimental in the same way — still original and unique with some of its knowing/meta comments, but far more linear and readily understandable compared to Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. It might be worthwhile to checkout if completing a literature tour on loss or if you’re interested in a more straightforward (but still literary) story on grief.
  • This book also reminds of the trippy and very, very creepy horror movie The Babadook. The Babadook monster is also a sort-of physical representation of grief, so similar to Crow but one thousand times scarier.

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