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Max Porter – Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

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Dealing with sadness (crow).

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 112
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-32723-2
First Published: 24th August 2015
Date Reviewed: 9th November 2016
Rating: 4/5

A family in mourning is visited by a crow. Crow brings some havoc with him but he’s also there as Dad gets through the days without his wife – struggling to finish writing his book on Ted Hughes – and as the boys come to terms with life without their mother.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is a rather experimental book steeped in literary history. Looking at grief both as a process and in the various guises it takes, it blends prose and poetry together with semi-autobiographical elements – Porter lost his father as a child – to become something very unusual indeed.

There is a lot to this book; it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start with the style: Porter opts to eschew convention, deciding not to choose between poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction, commentary, study, fully-fledged plot, vignette. His book is the result of a vast mixing pot that is both confusing and compelling. Mind-blowing concepts within the whole compete alongside aspects that are difficult to define. It’s safe to say this book requires a lot of attention.

And a fair bit of knowledge. Whilst the book can just about be read without knowledge of its background subjects, your reading of it will be immensely improved by your having at least a basic idea of the lives and work of those who have influenced Porter. Chief amongst these is the poet Ted Hughes, whose book Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow is, not surprisingly, a major factor. Porter’s general interest in Hughes means that any knowledge is useful – and it pays to know about the poet’s relationship with Sylvia Plath.

Porter takes his inspiration for his Crow from Hughes but also from the bird itself. It is the sections written from Crow’s point of view that invite the most bafflement – the sentences are often a mess of words, onomatopoeia-like creations, and a general strangeness pervades. There is the idea of a metaphor – who or what Crow is, and how much he/she/it is related to Hughes’ Crow is a question that spans the entire book. Is this Death? Is this grief itself? Is it, even, Sylvia Plath? And why does Dad see Crow – because it suits Porter or because he’s working on a Hughes commentary?

On the stylistic note, the book uses three narratives – Crow, Dad, and ‘Boys’, the latter of which concerns the two sons but is written from one point of view, potentially to infer that at their young age the boys’ grief could be considered interchangeable, or maybe that their experiences are the same. Sections by the Boys are written in verse and meanings are split over a couple of lines. Much whitespace between narratives as well as lines and sometimes words mean that the book is even shorter than it appears, physically. And in many ways this is a good thing because of the amount of detail and commentary Porter has packed in.

To the stated grief, then; Porter has spared nothing. The book is at its most powerful when it’s examining the forms grief takes and how different people deal with it. Again metaphors and explorations take centre stage, with stereotypes and the idea that one must get over it always lingering nearby.

Take this, the Boys’ reaction to their father calmly coming into their room to tell them their mother has gone:

Where are the fire engines? Where is the
noise and clamour of an event like this?
Where are the strangers going out of their
way to help, screaming, flinging bits of
emergency, glow-in-the-dark equipment
at us to try and settle us and save us?

And this, wherein Dad works through both the metaphorical and literal detritus left in her wake:

She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.

As said, this book requires all your attention. It’s incredibly easy, even with context behind you, to lose your way and it can take work to find yourself again. This is where Porter’s leaving of titbits comes in handy, most noticeably around the middle where comprehension questions, of the English Literature lesson type, are added as part of the narrative.

So Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is hard work but can be very rewarding. But it is also a very unusual beast and fits a specific, niche, category. You have to be happy with the very experimental style.

A difficult book to recommend outright, Porter’s début will intrigue most, delight many, and confuse just as many too and your experience of it won’t necessarily lie in how much you do or don’t know of Porter’s literary interests.

Keep a look out for it, go after it even, and see what you think. It’s quite an experience.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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Andrew McMillan – Physical

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In all its flaws, in all its beauty.

Publisher: Jonathan Cape (Random House)
Pages: 45
Type: Poetry
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-224-10213-1
First Published: 9th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 1st November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Physical is a short collection of poems that’s focused on the male body and sexuality – relationships, encounters, day-to-day life. It uses a specific style to focus attention on a few ideas at any one time. (It is also apparently inspired by poet Thom Gunn – I don’t know enough about his work to comment on this properly; I can only say there is similarity in the themes and the approach to them.)

There are some fantastic passages in this book that have the power to leave you a little stunned in the way of all great poetry (that sort of pause effect this reviewer is coming to love). As it’s short it can be good to read it slowly and it pays to take your time over the lines, to really read into what is being said; McMillan often uses double meanings that are rather clever, a line ending acting also as the start of the next line.

taken allegorically     he is beating on himself
until the point at which the inner river of the word grace
runs passed and everything lays down in calm
and walking back across the stream to his possessions
he feels the bruise that is staining his thigh
and he wonders at the strength of one so smooth

One of the stand outs is the very first entry, Jacob With The Angel, which takes a biblical tale, looking at it from both the usual and another angle. It’s a variation full of artistic license and provocation that asks you not to look at the story in another way exactly, but in a way that asks you to consider a potentially different meaning or possibility behind the words. McMillan explains himself outright, saying, “taken literally” then “taken allegorically” – it’s a story exploration of possibilities that makes you admire the thinking behind it.

At the risk of making it seem as though this review only concerns the very first few poems (because an example of style using the third poem follows this paragraph), another stand out is Urination. The whole being just as blunt as its title, this piece looks at discomfort in public situations, childhood memories, having to use the toilet at home when in a relationship. It seems an almost odd choice of subject but McMillan makes it important, stylist choices making it so much more than you’d think it might be. (And to get away from the first poems the multiple-page-spanning-or-is-it middle section of the book is worth reading just for the use of white space.)

In terms of McMillan’s use of pause, white space, to denote meaning and so forth, The Men Are Weeping In The Gym – about power and things that are seen as weaknesses – is one poem that illustrates the method constantly and consistently, so that you can just extract a couple of lines from the rest to show the method in action. For example:

the bicepcurl     waiting     staring
straight ahead     swearing that the wetness
on their cheeks is perspiration

A good use of language, a play on grammar, sentence clauses, and when added to McMillan’s tendency to put words together that aren’t ‘supposed’ to be together but could be – twelveyearold; slowpunctured; shortflightstopover – words that in McMillan’s collection become their own entity, it’s quite something.

Quite something – that’s it in a nutshell. Physical is powerful, stunning, mind-blowing, but not quite perfect – a word which of course has value here because in the context of the collection not being perfect is sometimes the point. The collection repeats itself to interlink, to draw connections between poems, but it also repeats itself literally, subjects that are in reality separate scenes but on the page sound very similar. Is that a problem? The answer is subjective – it really depends on how much you’re enjoying reading about the themes; McMillan’s writing itself never waivers. It’s another reason to take your time.

However you feel, it’s safe to say that McMillan’s book is a valuable addition to the world of poetry. To be taken literally.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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Louisa Young – The Heroes’ Welcome

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We’ll meet again.

Publisher: Borough Press (HarperCollins)
Pages: 322
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-36147-2
First Published: 22nd May 2014
Date Reviewed: 16th August 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Riley returned from WWI a changed man, half his jaw missing. Surgery made up for some of it; Nadine still wants to marry him though her family worry about his prospects – it doesn’t seem to matter to employers that he served his country when he’s disfigured and thus deemed a discomforting presence. Riley’s worried about how Nadine will view him and in turn Nadine is worried about Riley’s depression; she doesn’t care that his looks have changed. Then there’s Peter and Julia – Peter served with Riley and came back physically unharmed but the war has taken its toll on his mind. Julia, in an attempt to reach him, experimented with cosmetics and has damaged her skin. Will either couple return to how they were?

The Heroes’ Welcome is the sequel to Young’s previous book, My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You. This fact is not noted; fortunately the book works as a standalone or at least it seems to – readers of the first book say it does matter, that you need to read them in order. The Heroes’ Welcome is a fair look at disability in the context of the war, it just doesn’t have much of a plot or character development going on.

On that word, ‘fair’, it’s fair to say the book goes a good way towards showing social issues and personal rehabilitation but doesn’t go quite as far as one might hope. It shows PTSD and the effects of the disorder on families – one of those topics that doesn’t get looked at much – but the main bulk of the development in this way is confined to a few pages. Young knew about the hospitals and healing through the work of her aunt (I discovered this after having read the book) which means that when the subject is concentrated it’s special. In those few pages is a wonderful overview of what you’re already starting to understand, the juxtaposition of society saying, ‘welcome back and thank you for your service!’ and ‘I’m not sure you can do this work and anyway you’ll scare people – no job for you’. It both harks back to the post-war days and illustrates what is unfortunately still the case today.

The writing is pretty good. It flows well and in the main rings true, however there are some anachronisms – ‘epically’, ‘those ones’, and the rather odd ‘losable’, for example. Young slots a first person thought narrative into the third person narration which makes the text choppy at times. Phrasing can be vague.

Young was inspired by the work of another writer who used Homer in conjunction with the events of WWI, showing how related the ancient text is to the later war. It’s interesting but the sense of fascination and seeming originality in Young’s book is marred by this fact of copying – something only divulged in the afterword, after you’ve finished it. And if you haven’t read Homer or don’t know the stories well, it may be a problem. It may be best to read Homer or to get your knowledge of The Iliad down to pat first… which given the nature and length of that text…

In sum, The Heroes’ Welcome sports nice language, good ideas, and isn’t a bad read, but there’s not much going on and for all the promise in the veterans’ stories, the book is lacking in substance. The ending is a bit of a rushed, convenient, job. The book would work best as further reading, say if you’ve completed Anna Hope’s Wake and want something that looks at the war in a similar light. It’s not, as the quotation on the cover says, the book to read about the war if you’re only ever going to read a single one.

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Susanna Kearsley – Mariana

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Making amends for the past.

Publisher: Allison & Busby
Pages: 387
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-749-00706-5
First Published: 1994
Date Reviewed: 17th April 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Julia moves into a little house in a lovely village that she had always admired. Very soon she’s experiencing very realistic daydreams wherein she’s herself but not quite, a historical person rather like her. It happens everywhere – the big old house, her own house, and outside. It’s worrying – one day she’s spotted pottering around oblivious to the road traffic – but also too mysterious not to follow. Someone many many years in the past experienced much sadness and Julia feels the need to work it out. And whilst her brother may have his reservations – her safety is at stake, after all – it seems others in the village might have played a role back then, too, including the rather handsome lord of the manor.

Mariana adheres to that particularly special set of mixed genres so many love: it’s a historical time-slip romance. And it’s an excellent one.

The story goes a bit further than your usual haunting or time-slip shadows idea, presenting you with a character who is both the modern day time ‘slipee’ and the ghost; Julia is ‘Julia’ during her waking and non-daydream hours and ‘Mariana’ in the opposite. It’s an excellent concept that plays right into the idea of reincarnation, karma, and unfinished business, and it’s not just Julia in the mix – there’s a suitor or two and a friend or three there, as well.

It really is very special and as it was written in the 90s there are no phones or computers to divert attention. It harkens back to days of yore when people spent more time outside – for many readers it’ll be as much a nostalgic trip as a historical time-slip, and it’s topped off by Julia’s career as a book illustrator; she’s all about drawing.

If you like nature and villages, this one’s for you. Rather than the totally stereotypical accent-full northern Cotswold village, or the Cornish seaside, Kearsley opts for Exbury in Wiltshire which is less romantic than some but makes sure you don’t get too carried away with the present. With this book you want to stay in the past until Aunt Freda says it’s time to move on.

The writing is fair. There are a few errors, understandable considering the author’s nationality, but nothing to stop you reading. Indeed it may surprise you that it’s Kearsley’s first book – there are niggles and perhaps hints that she’s following a well trodden path but it’s a very competent piece of work. It’s hard to put down even when you know where it’s headed. The ending may leave the question of ‘what about so and so…?’ unanswered but it’s not frustrating or ambiguous.

And when it’s predictable? It doesn’t matter – this book is all about the journey, the ride. As one of the characters says, Julia is on a journey and it will come to an end – we begin at the start and finish where she leaves off. There’s no superfluity here and only minimal, planned, convenience.

Mariana is a historical dream, a romantic’s wish, a reader’s demands satisfied. It is quite something.

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Helen Slavin – Crooked Daylight

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The definition of magic?

Publisher: Ipso Books
Pages: 204
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-29567-9
First Published: 24th August 2016
Date Reviewed: 20th September 2016
Rating: 3/5

When their grandmother dies, Anna, Charlie, and Emz inherit her cottage and the woods that surround it, but, already having homes of their own (well, Emz lives with Mum) they decide to let it as a holiday rental. One of these rentals is to a mysterious young woman who likes to bathe in the lake they’d always been told to avoid, and when they spot a man in the woods the sisters are worried. And it seems their grandmother is still around, helping them. Amidst this are the sister’s own stories of relationships, deaths, and young adulthood.

Crooked Daylight is the first book in a planned series focusing on three modern sisters who may have a little magic about them.

This is an interesting take on the idea of magic. It’s the sort of thing that’s been done many times before but not quite in this way which sounds like a paradox and therefore requires explaining. The three sisters – Anna, Charlie, and Emz (whose full name is Emma but as that isn’t revealed until near the end there’s plenty of space to speculate whether, perhaps, Slavin had thoughts of the Brontë sisters in mind) – are people living in our present day with our mobile phones and conveniences. This time period isn’t so much explained as it is shown through slang and the sisters’ often abbreviated language. (Sometimes it can seem as though they are a lot younger than their ages which may be a turn-off for some.) The various housing involves terraces, town houses, and their mother’s new state-of-the-art home… but then there’s also their late grandmother’s cottage in the woods that Slavin’s descriptions infer to be your fantastical wooden thatched cottage. So it’s a meeting of modern reality and slightly older fantasy, but it’s still not that simple. Slavin doesn’t explicitly address the magical elements until near the end which has the effect of pulling you deeper into the narrative as you try to work it out. Is there any magic, really? What sort? Is it just something supernatural?

So Slavin has aimed for something between reality and fantasy that skews more towards reality. It’s the sort of usage that brings to life those times when we wonder how something no one could have had a hand in could be so coincidental. It all works very well.

However, to go back to those characters and their ages that are hard to believe, it can be difficult to relate to them. It’s not that they are dislikeable per se, but they do at times get into drama and other people’s business when they should mind their own, for example one time they have a quite valid worry about a person’s safety but instead of approaching them – a tenant – to mention it, they use their privilege as the holiday home owners to enter the cottage and look around without asking whilst the woman hides in another room, uncomfortable. Another occasion sees one of them becoming quite snotty with some women who so far have done nothing to her (barring trying to stop her and her sisters when they run off with their grandmother’s body to cremmate it in the way they, the sisters, feel it should be done). There’s a disconnection between action and reason.

A seemingly minor element but a compelling one – the sisters’ mother, Vanessa. Vanessa is very different to her daughters and her own mother alike; whereas Hettie (the sisters’ grandmother – Vanessa’s mother) had something magical going on about her and so, it seems, do Anna, Charlie, and Emz, Vanessa is a scientist who lives in an incredibly modern home. Her home is so modern her daughters can’t work out how to use it and whilst this factor may bring about an extra few centimetres in the gulf between mother and daughters, there’s the slight suggestion in it that Vanessa is trying to forge her own path. Whilst the daughters are modern but affected by this magic of their grandmother’s, Vanessa is left out. Her daughters may feel neglected, and that may be true, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder on – why is Vanessa so different? Is it simply that Slavin wants to bring to the fore the difference between traditional magic, superstition, and up-to-the-minute scientific findings, or is it a look at how a person left out will try to forge their own path, their own identity? It may be something, it may be nothing – this reviewer may be over-thinking it – but it’s interesting to contemplate and the difference between mother and daughters will doubtless be further explored as the series continues.

There is no major plot-line in this book which can make it difficult to keep up with the goings on. Various threads and a large number of secondary characters make it feel like a soap opera at times but when the narrative focuses it’s pretty good. It takes a while for that particular thread to become less blurred, to show what it actually is, but the pace gets swifter once it’s settled into. It’s a case of having a lot of information at once, presumably to set up the scene for the series, but it would’ve been better for it to be unwound slowly.

The writing is generally good. Slavin often uses unconventional words – onomatopoeias, for example – that are distinct because we tend to use other words, but this becomes a quirk you look forward to and the meaning of these words is always obvious. But there is a shortage of commas – sometimes clauses that are meant to mean one thing read as something else.

Crooked Daylight is a nice read but quite disjointed. It ends well, suggesting the next book will be very good (and a lot higher in magical content) so if you like the general idea you may want to read it or at least keep the series in mind for when the next one is out.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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