Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

"Grief is the thing with feathers" by Max Porter (Faber, 2015)

A short-sectioned novella-length piece of text with 3 main voices whose titles are at the top of each section -

  • Dad - a grieving intellectual - "The doorbell rang and I braced myself for more kindness" (p.4). His wife died 4 or 5 days before
  • Boys - 2 young sons, far more articulate than their age would lead you to suspect
  • Crow - Wild - "Strap me to the mast or I'll bang her until my mathematics poke out her sorry, sorry, sorry, look! A severed hand, bramble, box of swans, box of stories, piss-arc, better off, must stop shaking, must stay still, mast stay still" (p.11). Also knowing - "In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can't, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God" (p.15)

Interactions begin between these voices -

  • Dad - "There is a fascinating constant exchange between Crow's natural self and his civilised self" (p.22)
  • Boys - "Dad has gone. Crow is in the bathroom ... He says SUDDEN TRAUMA INDUCED ALTERATION OF THE ALERT STATE. Dad comes back. Crow changes his tune" (p.23)

Then the boys' Gran dies. Time pass. "There was very little division between [the boys'] imaginary and real worlds, and people talked of coping mechanisms and normal childhood and time. Many people said 'You need time', when what we needed was washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bow, arrows" (p.38). The father recalls when "love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes" (p.39)

The father's been commissioned to write a book - "Ted Hughes' Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis".

Crow starts telling a story - "Once upon a time there were two big men who were brothers with one another. They were in brother with each other" (p.43). At the end he asks "Comprehension Questions" including "If the boots are a metaphor for the ability to cope with grief, who do you think has died?" (p.44).

Crow also has things to say about threes - "But don't stop looking. The triptych is about ways of never stopping. It is culture. On the right we have the boys. Two forms, but one shape, could be female, could be male, we can just about decipher four little legs and four little arms (the newborn calf of the right-hand panel!) and tiny little hopeful faces. And sense is suddenly made of the previous panels, this is pure mathematics, this is ancient logic. It is nature. This is what I call the lift-off, late style, the ten-year-journey-home, the arrow through the eye-hole, the fugue. Very sunset. Very bard. Very poignant" (p.47)

Crow is many things - family protector of sorts, a provider of alternative viewpoints. When dad gets poetically sad on p.50, the section ends with "Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet". On p.103 the bird says "You'll remember with some of my earlier work with you, that what appeared to be primal corvid vulgarity was in fact a highly articulated care programme, designed to respond to the nuances of your recovery". When crow disappears, the father appears to be over the worst.

The boys tell fairy tales. I especially like the one on p.73. And I like the story of the father's trip to see Ted Hughes in Oxford. I like the book. If "Citizen" is poetry, so is this, less pretentiously.

Other reviews

  • Kirsty Gunn (Guardian) (this book that looks and reads like a collection of poetry is very much a novel; a complex poetic grouping of ideas and images that is as easy to read as a children’s story)
  • Adam Mars-Jones (London Review of Books) (Max Porter’s compact and splendid book, a polyphonic narrative with elements of the prose poem, cracks open a set of emotions that has become spuriously coherent and tractable)
  • Heller McAlphin (a wondrous, supremely literary, ultimately hopeful little book)
  • Ann Hulbert (The Atlantic) (The Emily Dickinson–derived title and featherweight of this remarkable volume should alert you that it is more prose poem than novel, but no less capacious for that.)
  • Karen Gentry (The Rumpus) (Porter’s collage of prose and lineated poetry is the very opposite of self-help. Grief does not seek to offer answers, but instead brilliantly mimics the chaos of the grieving brain, offering a vision of how loss dramatically alters it.)
  • Katie Kitamura (New York Times) (One of the challenges faced by a novel about grief is rendering in linear terms a sensation that is more akin to a field. Grief is all-encompassing, radiating outward in multiple directions, circular rather than linear. Recovery is a destination that in Porter’s novel is also a form of betrayal)

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