It’s no coincidence that my renewed energy to get back to my writing came shortly after I started reading prodigiously again – having been frustrated in this lifelong vocation by a combination of having two young children, poor mental health and taking on other commitments.
In any case, Grief is the Thing with Feathers had been recommended to me by a friend and passing through a bookstore en route to a bus station ahead of a lengthy journey (five hours on a bus being a great excuse to spend quality time with some books) it was sitting there in front of me with a buy one, get one half price* sticker on it and I scooped it up.
I read the book in one sitting on the bus – it’s not a lengthy tale, only 114 pages or so – and have found my thoughts returning to it in the days since.
* Incidentally, the other book I picked up was Ancestral Machines by Michael Cobley, seeing as I enjoyed the original Humanity’s Fire trilogy, but I haven’t got into that yet.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a story about a father and two sons dealing with the loss of their wife/mother, and how they are helped through this by their houseguest/friend/familiar Crow.
Now, this pitch is aimed almost directly at my soul in particular because I lost my mother when I was eleven, I currently have two young sons (and a thankfully, alive wife) and I’ve had a lifelong affinity for crows, partially because of their mythological connection to the afterlife, resulting in my having a tattoo of a crow on my arm. In any case, the subject matter hit particularly close for me but the themes of grief and loss are pretty universal and should resonate with most people.
The real trick with this book is that the story is told from the various viewpoints of the Dad, Boys and Crow, each with their own distinctive voice, as if they are writing diary entries, reminiscing or just uttering a commentary. While the Dad and the Boys are both in their way grief stricken, wistful and searching, Crow is phlegmatic, onomatopoeic, irascible, crude and violent in his stream of consciousness thoughts and the contrast really stands out and is the crux on which the story turns.
There is a tremendous honesty in this book, not sheltering from the sadness and awkwardness that characterises grief and the ways in which many outsiders concept of ‘helping’ really doesn’t, moving on seems like a betrayal and how the loss of a person can leave a family with a tangible emptiness and fragility.
I feel I might have missed something by not being familiar with the work of Ted Hughes (something I shall remedy forthwith) who is referenced throughout the book and I understand, directly influenced the character of Crow. However, that potential lack of comprehension did not dilute my enjoyment of this book and my attachment to the characters in any way.
From the surreal and affecting start, through violence and humour to the heartbreaking and triumphant ending, Grief is the Thing with Feathers has impressed on me more than any book in a long time.
It made me cry and I’m thankful for that. I wish I’d had a Crow.