Hope, of course, is the thing with feathers in Emily Dickinson’s poem, but in Max Porter’s book, death has blackened its wings and grief has supplanted hope, with a crow as its familiar.
After the sudden and unexpected death of his wife, Dad — a Ted Hughes scholar — and his two young sons (“the boys”) are visited by Crow, a literary conceit out of the poetry Dad writes about (specifically “Crow,” Hughes’ masterpiece, written after the death of his wife, Sylvia Plath). But Crow is also somehow a real presence, with “a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.”
A trickster trailing a whiff of death and legend, Crow acts as “friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.” He prods and consoles, explains and tells stories, remembers details and “defends the nest.”
Alongside Crow’s shape-shifting voice are those of Dad and the Boys, acknowledging that “Dad was a different type of Dad now and we were different boys, we were brave new boys without a Mum,” and wondering at the same time, “Where are the fire engines? … 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?”
This last, Porter has said in an interview in the Guardian, is “based on my dad dying. When I was … six.”
Porter, who works in publishing in London, is also a Hughes aficionado and a self-professed “Crow nerd” and found in Crow, as “a symbol of life force and an agent of chaos,” an apt figure for addressing grief.
Which sounds pretty heady — and indeed there are moments of poetry and impressionistic observations and odd little otherworldly exchanges, allusions to brands of psychology and fables. But piercing the wordplay and abstractions and flights of fancy are the sharp specifics that make the family’s loss clear and their grief that much more real. “The house becomes a physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers. … 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.”
The boys go suddenly and disarmingly from an idea of boys (“We were small boys with remote-control cars and ink-stamp sets and we knew something was up”) to an essence (“Some of the times we tell the truth. It’s our way of being nice to Dad”). And when a passage threatens to become sentimental, Crow is there is bring it down a notch: “Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.”
To call this tiny but potent book a novel is to grossly misrepresent it — but maybe that says more about our constrictive definition of the novel than it does about this book, which uses the writer’s, and Crow’s, whole bag of tricks to transform the indescribable absence that is grief into palpable, undeniable life.
Ellen Akins is a writer, editor and critic in Wisconsin and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Grief Is the Thing With Feathers
By: Max Porter.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 114 pages, $14.
Event: With Marlon James. 7 p.m. June 23, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.