Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

A minimalist meditation on loss takes an unusual slim and poetic form.

grief is the thing

Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers handles bereavement and the novel format in inventive ways. Scraps of poetry, dialogue and ramblings, with lots of white space, fill just over 100 pages, but this sparse little volume takes on no less than love, loss and art.

Three parts, “A Lick of Night,” “Defence of the Nest” and “Permission to Leave,” roundly sum up the grieving process. Brief segments are narrated from three characters’ perspectives: Dad, Boys and Crow. Mom has recently died, and Dad and two young sons struggle to cope until a special Crow comes along to care for them–in a manner of speaking.

The Crow’s voice tends toward the stream-of-consciousness, as a bird’s might, but there’s no questioning its agency and intelligence. Dad is an eccentric Ted Hughes scholar, struggling to write a book on deadline. Under these influences, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers resembles free verse. The Boys generally speak as “we”; despite the occasional singular, the two brothers are interchangeable. In Porter’s poetic bent and unusual usages, “They were in brother with each other.” They are nonetheless realistic and childlike; they wonder, when their mother dies, “Where are the fire engines…? Where are the strangers… screaming, flinging bits of emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment at us to try and settle us and save us?”

This is not a novel for children, with its moments of gore and sex, but it is a whimsical and ultimately pleasing perspective on grief, and utterly original.


This review originally ran in the June 3, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 flecks of toothpaste.

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