Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter (2015)

I picked up this book yesterday and so begins the first of hopefully several bookish reviews on this blog. I haven’t read a thing for ages and I have a growing stack of books Lizzie wants me to read, but when I saw this book it just called out to me. I demolished it in an hour on the train home from work. It’s a short book.

That said, i’m not sure i’d recommend it. It’s not a bad book and the approach taken is actually quite fresh. Part stream-of-consciousness, part poetry, the pages rotate through three viewpoints: a widower, his sons, and Crow; the sentimental but blunt avian visitor who helps the family grieve.

I liked the viewpoints of the Boys and Father best. The two boys as a single voice is an interesting technique, and the way they talk deadpan about their misbehaviour makes for an entertaining and morbid – in that way that teenage boys are – read. The father too – and his dialogue with Crow – as he expresses his love for his boys and despair at losing his wife make for a very emotional journey.

I think what I liked best about the book is it’s not at all preachy and it doesn’t attempt to explain grief. Grief comes in all shapes and sizes and the characters embody this. I don’t think it’s specifically aimed at those dealing with loss, rather it could be for any one of us. It’s not a how-to-grieve book and it certainly doesn’t give any answers. It’s also not particularly comforting. Grief is a subject we don’t often touch, even though it touches us all, but I don’t think i’d use this book as an opener. It’s simply an unapologetic snapshot of a small family trying to keep on, getting on.

I liked the Crow character and his arrival is very evocative, if particularly crude. His dreams made me laugh. However he also makes for most of my frustration with the book and why I think I don’t like it as much as I want to. When he’s observing the Boys or giving the Father the blunt facts, he’s brilliant, sharp and witty, however outside of that a lot of his dialogue is gibberish. Really, actual gibberish. There are words in there, even sentences, but it makes for a very challenging read.

At times, it works. Crow is literally coughing up human words to form sentences, but at other times I think it’s meant to represent his scatty bird-like thought process. While an effective stylistic choice, for me personally I found these parts very irritating. I once had a failed attempt at reading A Clockwork Orange which is similarly inaccessible. That annoyed me too and I gave up.

Here, I pushed through. I wanted to find out more about the family and what would be the outcome of Crow’s therapy. I liked the story; I liked the characters; I even liked the literary techniques; I just didn’t like the book itself very much.

What are you reading?

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