Rating: 4 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room March Madness Challenge.
I was in two minds about reading this book, but I’m glad I did. It’s sad and raw, but funny, too, in its sorrowful sweetness. The melancholy and the magic of the ugly, sarcastic, relentless Crow made me think of the Thistledown Man in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Something in the way death has a mysticism about it, and grief makes you believe strange things about reality, and the chosen embodiment of grief is as harsh as is necessary. In grief, nothing matters and everything matters. Grieving is very personal and hard to explain, but at the same time it’s universal. For me, Grief is the Thing with Feathers encapsulated that very well.
A couple of nights before I started reading Max Porter’s book, I watched a TV programme about the footballer Rio Ferdinand. His wife died two years ago, leaving him to raise their three young children. It was a brilliant piece of telly. He articulated how difficult it can be to grieve, because there is such an expectation in British society for people to pull themselves back together quickly and get back to being normal, functioning members of society.
It’s almost two months since my mum died. I still have days when I can’t believe that I will never see her again, and want to cry until I’ve run out of tears. Sometimes I let myself, but only if I feel that I’ve got time to. Somewhere at the back of my mind is the idea that it’s self-indulgent and shows a lack of resilience. That I should be over it by now. Because, after all, I did have two weeks off work on compassionate grounds, so that must be the time limit on grief. Three cheers for the British stiff upper lip, eh? When did we lose our understanding of grief?
I haven’t read any Ted Hughes other than The Iron Man and the collection How The Whale Became. I got the impression that Porter was partly writing in homage to Hughes, but I don’t know enough about it to say that’s true. I know that Hughes wrote something called Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, something he thought was his greatest literary achievement, but I haven’t read it. The dad in the book has written a book on the subject of Ted Hughes and Crow. Maybe now I’ll read Crow.
I liked the notion of grief being a massive crow that invades your home and holds you under its wing then pesters you until you’re done grieving. A crow that expects you to acknowledge its bizarre existence, as well. A crow that is mean to you and about you, who wants to eat the things that are precious to you.
I liked how sarcastic and sweary the dad is. And how boyish the boys are.
I remember her pretending to like watching award ceremonies more than she actually did because it surprised me, but then I let her know that such-and-such award ceremony was on and we would have to sit through it. Let’s go to bed, she said, we don’t really know who any of these people are.
Winners, I said. Every stinking ugly vacuous cunt-faced last one of them.
And off we went to bed.
We all used to get a lot of trouble from Mum for flecking the mirror with toothpaste.
For a few years we flecked and spat and over-brushed and our mirror was a white-speckled mess and we all took guilty pleasure in it.
One day Dad cleaned the mirror and we all agreed it was excellent.
Various other things slipped. We pissed on the seat. We never shut drawers. We did these things to miss her, to keep wanting her.
I also liked how irritated the dad gets with people trying to tell him how to grieve and when to move on. I liked that he wanted to tell them to fuck off, that their well-meaning received wisdom was a nonsense, that you don’t move on, you just grow accustomed, wrapping the pocket of loss in layers of being.
There were things I didn’t like about the book. Occasionally, I thought it was trying too hard to be quirky. But mostly I enjoyed its weirdness. I liked that one moment it was a poem, another a kind of black comedy play, another the ramblings of the incoherently distraught wandering as though drunk through the aftermath of loss.
Most of all, I liked Crow. He was unhinged, and I like unhinged.