As the Crow Flies
Book review by Jude Joseph Lovell
In a recent, good-natured debate I had with my brother-in-law about books, he let me know that he didn’t care for a novel I had recommended. There were too many open-ended questions at the end of the story, he explained. “I don’t like that,” he added. “I like closure.”
At the time I just nodded, accepting the verdict. Although it doesn’t bother me much if a novel ends without providing all the answers, I know that almost everyone else likes closure. We all want corners to be squared neatly. It’s just that life doesn’t always oblige.
The work in question here is Grief is the Thing with Feathers, the debut novel from Max Porter, the editorial director of the British literary journal, Granta. At the center of the book is what may be the ultimate open question: How do we deal with the death of someone we love? It approaches this difficult subject in a succinct, sometimes dazzling manner, but it certainly doesn’t tie everything up neatly at its conclusion—because it can’t.
Porter’s short (114 pages) novel won’t be for everyone, then. But inasmuch as its subject matter, sadly, will eventually affect us all, I can assure readers that it’s not a waste of their time either. A novel that plunges us deeply into the subject of human grief may not seem like a whopping good time, but I would argue that the questions it raises in a reader’s mind are useful.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers—its title a riff on Emily Dickinson’s famous poetic description of hope—concerns a youngish father of two small boys. He is an academic, working on a book about another poet, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s husband. One of Hughes’s most highly regarded works is entitled Crow, an experimental book about an eponymous, mythological character, which Hughes wrote in the years following Plath’s suicide in 1963. Porter’s novel adopts this Crow as a literal character, a giant bird who visits the young father’s house just after his wife’s accidental death.
The brief story that follows deals with the father’s anguished attempts to endure the loss of someone he has loved so deeply. Crow appears early and imposes himself upon the now all-male, rudderless household, promising to stay until the father and sons “don’t need him anymore.” The boys don’t question Crow’s appearance much, it being just another inexplicable event in a world whose clarity has been permanently muddied by their mother’s death.
Porter’s novel is constructed of short chapters narrated alternately by three voices: “Dad,” “Boys,” and “Crow.” Each of these voices is persuasive and distinct, offering varying perspectives on the same shattering event. Porter seems the most animated when writing as Crow—a blunt, aggressive, and quirky character. Crow doesn’t mince words: “You sound like a fridge magnet,” he chides poor Dad at one vulnerable moment. But Crow also finds purchase in the state of things in the house: “I find humans dull except in grief.”
As for those humans, their thoughts are colorfully and often movingly expressed, reflecting the brokenness we experience when death knocks on our own loved ones’ doors. The shattered father cannot shake thoughts of his lost lover, her “ribs splayed like a xylophone with the dead birds playing tunes on her bones.” At another stage he glumly describes the overpowering grieving process as a “dress rehearsal for the rest of our lives.”
Articulating the mindset of the two small boys in one voice also leads to unexpected but compelling results. Their fear of further loss is palpable in many places. “A gone dad is a gone dad ever,” Boys observes when their father has to go on a trip. At one point the voice flat-out states that it is “either brother,” as if the two are interchangeable. Late in the book there are passages where the sons have grown older, now fathers themselves, but still obviously affected by Crow and all he represented.
Which was what? In his sui generis and often startling novel, Porter has found a fascinating metaphor for the grief process itself. For all its incomprehensibility to us as flawed human beings, grief may as well be a feathered thing that descends upon us, unannounced and untranslatable, from some distant plane. And, as with our own mourning, when it is “done” with our feeble souls, it simply takes wing.
As I write these words, one of my uncles, a powerful moral, spiritual, and artistic influence on my own life, is approaching the end of a prolonged cancer battle. My mother and family are right now poised on the edge, about to plunge into that dark pool once again.
No novel is going to change that. But this reviewer will always be grateful for works of art and literature like Grief is the Thing with Feathers that in some small way assist in the life-long process of self-reflection, of determining what it means to live and have lived.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.