I'm not quite sure how to describe Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers, other than to say it's breathtaking, original, experimental, heartrending and is inspired by Ted Hughes Crow, which Hughes wrote in the aftermath of Plath's death. It's part prose poem, part novel - a spare, poetic story of a widowed father and his two sons, who are visited by Crow, babysitter, trickster, healer, antagonist, who threatens to stay until they no longer need him.
I have stolen (please let me know if this is highly illegal) an excerpt from Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, originally printed in The Guardian a few days ago, and appended it below. No review I could write would show the extraordinary power of Porter's prose better than this extended quotation could.
Extract from Grief is the Thing With Feathers
Once upon a time there was a demon who fed on grief. The delicious aroma of raw shock and unexpected loss came wafting from the doors and windows of a widower’s sad home.
Therefore the demon set about finding his way in.
One evening the babes were freshly washed and the husband was telling them tales when there was a knock on the door.
Rat-a-tat-tat. “Open up, open up, it’s me from 56. It’s … Keith. Keith Coleridge. I need to borrow some milk.”
But the sensible father knew there was no number 56 on the quiet little street, so he did not open the door.
The next night the demon tried again.
Rat-a-tat-tat. “Open up, open up, I’m from Parenthesis Press. It’s Paul. Paul … Graves. I heard the news. I’m truly gutted it’s taken me this long to come over. I’ve brought a pizza and some toys for the boys.
But the attentive father knew there had been a Pete from Parenthesis and a Phil from Parenthesis, but never a Paul from Parenthesis, so he did not open the door.
The next night the demon ran at the door, flashing blue and crackling.
Rat-a-tat-tat. BANG. BANG. “Open up! Police! We know you’re in there, this is an emergency, you have five seconds to open the door or we will smash our way in.”
But the worldly grieving man knew a bit about the law and sensed a lie.
The demon went away and wondered what to do next. He was tabloid-despicable, so a powerful plan came to him.
Rat-a-tat-tat-tat. Knock. Knock. Knock. “Boys? It’s me. It’s Mum. Darling? Are you there? Boys, open the door, it’s me. I’m back. Sweetheart? Boys? Let me in.”
And the babes flung their duvets back in abandon, swung their little legs over the edge of the bed and scampered down the stairs. The chambers of their baffled baby hearts filled with yearning and they tingled, they bounded down towards before, before, before all this. The father, drunk on the voice of his beloved, raced down after them. The sound of her voice was stinging, like a moon-dragged starvation surging into every hopeless raw vacant pore, undoing, exquisite undoing.
“We are coming, Mum!”
Their friend and houseguest, who was a crow, stopped them at the door.
My loves, he said.
My dear, sorry loves. It isn’t her. Go back to bed and let me deal with this. It isn’t her.
The boys floated their crumpled crêpe-paper dad back up, one under each arm steering his weightlessness, and they laid him down to sleep. Then they sat at the window looking down and watching what happened and they liked it very much, for boys will be boys.
Crow went out, smiled, sniffed the air, nodded good evening and back-kicked the door shut behind him.
Then Crow demonstrated to the demon what happens when a crow repels an intruder to the nest, if there are babies in that nest:
One loud KRONK, a hop, a tap on the floor, a little distracted dance, a HONK, swivel and lift, as a discus swung up but not released but driven down atomically fixed and explosive, the beak hurled down hammer-hard into the demon’s skull with a crack and a spurt then smashed onwards down through bone, brain, fluid and membrane, into squirting spine, vertebra snap, vertebra crunch, vertebra nibbled and spat and one-two-three-four-five all the way down quick as a piranha, nipping, cutting, disassembling the material of the demon, splashing in blood and spinal gunk and shit and piss, unravelling innards, whipping ligaments and nerves about joyous spaghetti tangled wool hammering, clawing, ripping, snipping, slurping, burping, frankly loving the journey of hurting, hurting-hurting and for Crow it was like a lovely bin full of chip papers and ice cream and currywurst and baby robins and every nasty treat, physically invigorating like a westerly above the moor, like a bouncy castle elm in the wind, like old family pleasures of the deep species. And Crow stands thrilled in a pool of filth, patiently sweeping and toeing remains of demon into a drain-hole.
His work done, Crow struts and leaps up and down the street issuing warnings while the pyjama-clad boys clap and cheer – behind-glass-silent – from the bedroom window. Crow issues warnings to the wide city, warnings in verse, warnings in many languages, warnings with bleeding edges, warnings with humour, warnings with dance and sub-low threats and voodoo and puns and spectacular ancient ugliness.
Satisfied with his defence of the nest, Crow wanders in to find some food.