Grief is the Thing with Feathers
Written by Max Porter
Review by Jarad Johnson
When we review books here at Sacred Chickens, we don’t always like them. We’re very well aware of the fact we have particular and occasionally odd tastes and that you might like books that aren’t for us. When you read our reviews, keep that in mind. We will not only tell you what we thought of the book, we’ll try to make sure that you can make an educated choice about the book in question and decide for yourself. This review is about one such book, a book that left Jarad a little cold, but that a lot of people like. If you did love the book, let us know! We might even publish your review.
This little book is one that I’ve been hearing about for some time now. I’ve heard it called poignant, meaningful, and genre-defying. It is a short book, coming in at only 150 pages. It seeks to examine a father and sons’ grief at the death of the wife and mother of the family. One day, the husband is visited by a crow, a personification of grief, who won’t leave until he isn’t needed anymore. The book is sometimes painful, sometimes humorous as the father struggles to get through the days after his wife’s death and the circumstances of her demise slowly unfold with the story. The crow speaks in metaphor and a rhythmic poetic language mixing a novella format with lyric poetry.
On the face of it, this book sounds great. Even the description feels poignant and moving. But… I was disappointed. Here’s the thing. Yes, I’m an English major but, guess what? I don’t like lyric poetry, especially if it’s deeply metaphorical or opaque. This type of poetry is one that has never jived with me, and in fact has irritated me enormously when I’ve been forced to read it in class. Its like looking through a dense fog, trying to locate a house or building through the mist. You may get an impression that something is there, but you can’t quite get the specifics of it. This is how I feel about lyrical poetry, and by extension this book. I know the author was trying to say something, but it was too shrouded in metaphor for me to make it out.
Having said that, I want to make a couple of things clear. I like novels. Long intense novels. Once you have created a narrative and characters, conjured them from the emotional depths, I want to fully explore their world.
I found the crow as a representation of grief an interesting concept, but unfortunately this character was the worst part of the book for me. I’m kind of partial to crows and ravens, and I think they’re often misunderstood creatures, but this guy was the exception. He often speaks in nonsensical rhyming patterns, which is maybe how you would expect a real crow to speak if it could, but I found that it just took up space and muddied the overall message. Sigh. I found myself skipping through those passages (something I never do) because frankly I wasn’t getting much out of them.
I find myself not knowing what to say about the other characters, because I never had a chance to get to know them before the book was finished. They were sad about a death, and I got to see a little bit of how they were handling that, but there were no poignant messages about grief, or, if there were, they were hidden behind nonsensical language and lyricism. It seems that the author, as is the case with many lyrical texts, was more concerned with creating an overall feeling, and did, but the characters suffered because of it. In other words, this was not the book I wanted it to be and as such, I found it very frustrating.
Not every book is for everyone, obviously, and one person’s life-changing reading experience is another’s boring disappointment. There are those who may feel that simply sitting with the emotion, letting the words of the crow wash over them and bathing them in the fog of grief is moving and meaningful. If so, this may be the book for you. If, on the other hand, you prefer narrative and fully realized stories and characters, you may want to look elsewhere. *
*If you are grieving and you are trying to process grief through reading, the New Yorker has A Reading List for the Grieving. If you have found any particular book helpful let us know in the comments or on our Face Book page. We would love to share your insights with our readers.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!