Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter, book review

Ted Hughes's wicked and omnivorous protagonist has been revived for this thrillingly various book

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Ted Hughes wrote his Crow poems in the years after the suicide of Sylvia Plath, whom he had left for another woman. Although they were intended as part of an epic mythic cycle, never completed, it's hard not to read them as expressions of grief, enraged stabs of revenge at a thankless world.

Now Hughes's wicked and omnivorous protagonist has been revived by Max Porter for this thrillingly various book, which in 114 pages passes itself off as essay, poem, fairy tale, lit crit both parodic and real, and putative memoir. I say putative, because although the premise – a young widowed father left to care for his two boys – is never linked to Porter's own life, the question of its trueness-to-life seems to hover ambiguously over the pages, tempting the reader to curious thoughts. It seems ghoulish to demand further details, not to mention critically crass. Is the book nicer if it's “true”? Is it better if it's not? Go take a hike.

The family's narrative of disaster and recovery is shared out between the Dad, the Boys and Crow in short named sections, and begins with the gatecrashing entrance of Hughes's black-feathered trickster-scavenger-philosopher into their silent, aching house, to act as protector, baby-sitter, therapist and goad. Crow himself speaks in a manic irrational rush: “Two-bed upstairs flat, split-level, slight barbed-error, snuck in easy through the wall and up the attic bedroom to see those cotton boys silently sleeping, intoxicating hum of innocent children, lint, flack, gack-pack-nack, the whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief.”

Too much of this would be wearying and self-defeating, but Porter's book is beautifully paced, with plenty of white space, and frequent switches in tone and rhythm; it is funny when it doesn't need to be, moving when it does.

Though Hughes is there all through it – and actually present in one much-rehearsed family anecdote that you'll want so much to be taken from life – the writer who sprang most to mind as I read it was Ali Smith.

Like her, Porter has the language-sense to know how to use simple words to get at the toughest of subjects. Like her, he knows how to be playful and serious at once. A well-intentioned family friend who suggests to Dad the importance of “moving on” gets this: “Oh, I said, we move. WE F**KING HURTLE THROUGH SPACE LIKE THREE MAGNIFICENT BRAKE-FAILED BANGERS, thank you, Geoffrey, and send my love to Jean.” Meanwhile, the boys are there to explore their new motherless life through odd, esoteric games, and to throw Dad into relief: “We had to take the piss out of him as hard we possibly could. We were convinced that it was what our Mum would have wanted.”

Grief is, of course, an evergreen theme for literature, though it seems particularly popular, if that's the term, over the past few years. But the point about grief as a subject is that it forces a writer to be good, to find new ways of saying the same old thing, for you would not want to dishonour the dead, or offend the bereaved, with something substandard or derivative, would you? This book is neither of those things. It's a blast and a breeze and, strangely, a delight.