Book Reviews

Grief is the Thing With Feathers – Max Porter | Book Review

grief is the thing with feathers max porter


Grief is the Thing with Feathers is the debut novella of Max Porter. Published in 2015, it lead Porter to win the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. The magic of this short book lies in its form. Written in what could be described as prose poetry with intermittent verse, this book is easy to read and shockingly well paced considering the weight of the themes, namely loss, and all the pain and questions it carries.


Pure lyricism

As an avid reader of poetry, I was immediately hooked by the writing’s lyricism. However, the poetic nature of this book does not remove its definition as a novella. The experimental structure still has a clear beginning, middle, and end. The story is split into these three parts during which the reader is exposed to the utter heartbreak of a man having lost the love of his life, and his two young sons coming to terms with the death of their mother. They live in a small flat in London and bleed their grief through the pages. The father is a Ted Hughes scholar who, at the time of his wife’s death, was writing a book called “Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch”.

“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 us let no man slow or speed or fix.”

Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers


Translating grief

The title of the book is a reference to the Emily Dickinson poem, ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers’. Porter does not hide his literary influences and uses characterisation from internationally renowned poetry to frame his own story.

The narrative is split between the man, the boys, and – most bizarrely – the crow. The crow walks straight out of Ted Hughes’ poetry into the lives of Porter’s characters. Visited by this crow, there are an initial fear and disgust, a mutual misunderstanding. However, a feeling that this crow is not going anywhere pervades. Crow becomes a translator for grief. Its narrative allows words to be spoken that the dad and his boys cannot produce.

The switches in the narrative are a replication of the fragility of them as individuals, held together by the strength of unabashed love. Without the trappings of traditional narrative, Porter presents grief as a brutal and disorganised truth. Sometimes appearing in short, sharp bursts, and sometimes longer, drawn-out, and meditative.


Life after a death

As the story goes on and the grief remains, the small family begin to accept the presence of Crow in their lives. Slowly, they welcome his presence, needing him, and finding respite beneath his heavy black feathers. Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a remarkable piece of literary fiction, made accessible by the purity of emotion which seeps through every page. There are also glorious sparks of humour throughout; the sound of laughter breaks through the insurmountable pain. The book is a portrait of the shock of life, death, and what happens when the two face each other.

“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.”

Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers


The experience of reading Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a flight of psychological motion, which stays with you long after the final page has landed. I was tempted to quote the final few lines of the book in this review, but the ending is the rawest and most cutting part of all, so it would be a disservice to those who have not read it yet to not come across it organically. I cannot recommend it highly enough for lovers of poetry and short fiction, and novel lovers who thrive off experimental prose and character-led stories.

By Jonella Vidal, SEO and Content Exec at World of Books



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