Grief is the thing with feathers is a sad, funny and singular novella in riposte to Emily Dickinson. It’s told from three perspectives: two young brothers speaking as one voice the Boys, their Dad and the Crow- imaginary?- who arrives at their London flat as they mourn their abruptly dead mother and wife after “the friends and family who had been hanging around being kind had gone home to their own lives.” Why a crow? Well, Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar who was “obsessing about this thing just when the greatest tragedy of my life occurred. These were factual yearnings. It was bitterly wonderful.” Porter switches between the three voices in prose poems that tell a story of grief not literal but true. As one of the boys recalls as an adult “I fondly remember family holidays with an imaginary crow, and …it could have been anything, could have gone any way, but something more or less healthy happened. We miss our Mum, we love our Dad, we wave at crows. It’s not that weird.”
The unnamed Boys’ and their Dad’s grief and the memories it gives way to are interspersed with Crow’s primordial and vulgar self- in his own words he is “friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.” This makes for an interesting mix of tones- sorrowful one moment, awfully, wincingly funny the next- and helps Porter avoid mawkishness. I found his style clear, vivid and original. Two images I especially liked were Dad remembering “being scared that something must, surely, go wrong, if we were this happy, her and me, in the early days, when our love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes.” and Crow observing that “human children after serious quantities of sugar” are “uncannily like blood-drunk fox cubs.
Porter has a gift for aposite details. The Boys bicker and misbehave but they also try to keep their Mum alive by messing up the bathroom, mocking their Dad and telling stories. Dad despairs that “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.“. Crow makes a list of things that do and do not scare him- scarecrows do not!
A short but memorable debut, authentic, emotional and enjoyable.