RAD Book Club review: Grief is the Thing with Feathers

30 Nov 2017

RAD Book Club met last Tuesday to discuss Grief is the Thing with Feathers, the first novel by London based publisher Max Porter.

Porter’s debut novel describes the life of a man and his two young boys who have recently lost their wife and mother. The family is visited by Crow, an unsettling presence, come to help them through their grief and despair. The story is narrated in a non-linear way, the voices of Crow, Dad and Boys triangulate throughout most of the book to present scenes, thoughts and stories through intricate, diverse voices which alternate. These voices are as very different in tone and moods of the different sections are starkly contrasted the text sometimes reads as poetry and includes lists and ridiculous comprehension questions.

The first thing we all realised is that this was not going to be an easy read, despite the shortness of the text, this was no straightforward narrative of events. We all admitted to feeling challenged by Crow’s use of onomatopoeic, archaic, crude and disjointed words and the way the narrative jumped backwards and forwards in time. Whilst some enjoyed the challenge more than others it became obvious during the discussion that we had all experienced strong and diverse emotions; words used by the group when describing their reactions to the text included ‘heart-breaking, angry, healing, humorous, moving, thought-provoking, realistic, offensive, beautiful, melancholy, hopeful’.

It became clear that we all vividly remembered certain scenes, passages and descriptions that we could relate to. In particular, the apparent simplicity of a single black feather on a pillow, Dad’s impression on family and friends’ response to their grief, the list of unfinished things his wife left lying around, or the attempts of the demon at the door. For many of use these images were very powerful, not only because of what they told but also because of what they left unresolved. This led to a discussion of why the books felt so raw and realistic. We felt that because the author is an editor, he had pared down his novel to such an extent that only the bare bones were left, leaving no room for any extraneous material to cushion the reader from the grieving process.

We noted that the arrangement of the book aligned with the ‘five stages of grief’, and the ‘acceptance cycle’, with Crow prodding Dad and the Boys to move towards the next stage, not always in ways that seem kind. All of us thought that Crow was a symbol, rather than a real bird, we understood that Crow was imagined by Dad, related to his obsession with finishing writing a book on Ted Hughes (who wrote a poem called Life and Songs of the Crow) and was therefore possibly gave expression to Dad’s darker, inner feelings of anger, irritation, helplessness and guilt. We also saw that Crow represented emotions associated not just with grief, sadness and bereavement but also with the creative energy, strength and hope which encourages Dad and Boys to love and support each other, to remember their wife/mother with joy and to see beauty once more.

A few have read it a second time and many would like to read it again, paying more attention to detail and allowing more time to process it, particularly as we realised we would have a different take on the book at different times in our life. Many also wondered whether some knowledge of Ted Hughes’ work would help in explaining some reference regarding content and form. Some also said how much their appreciation of the book and its evocative language had improved by hearing the author reading excerpts from it.