Grief is the Thing With Feathers – Max Porter

Back in November, I got the chance to present an award at the ‘Books are My Bag Reader’s Awards’. Like a nominee at the Oscars, it was an honour, just to be asked, but I also got to present the first award at the very awards.


I can already feel the blue plaque heading my way.


The award was for best fiction book of 2016 and the shortlist, selected by booksellers, was a strong one. Among the heavyweights of Maggie O’Farrell, Jessie Burton and Anne Enright were debut authors Joanna Cannon, Andrew Michael Hurley and Max Porter.


I’d read three of them and Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep was already in my reading pile. When I spotted Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers in my local WHSmith, I grabbed it so that I could add a fourth tick to my list (and it’s not often I actually buy books, so this marks it out as special right away).


It is not a long book, I could read it under an hour, but it’s not meant to be read in one sitting. It’s to be savoured, dipped into.


When I revealed it as winner up on that stage I said “and the winner is… on my bedside table, so no spoilers please.”


In reality, that’s a stupid thing to say about this book – it’s not the type of book that has spoilers, in fact, the spoiler is right there on the front cover. Grief is the thing with feathers. The metaphor of crow is spelled out for you right there.


(As an aside, the reason I ended up speaking such nonsense was because I was concentrating on not saying what was actually in my head which was namely “What are you doing, Alex? Get off the fucking stage.”)


So, what is it about? Dad. Boys. Crow.


A woman has died leaving behind three men. Dad and her boys. Dad, a Ted Hughes fan, introduces Crow into their lives. Crow is the thing with feathers. Crow is grief.


At first crow seems quite ominous, an imposing force on the small family’s life, however as we progress through the snapshots of their lives we learn that the the crow, their grief, is there to protect them from something worse: despair.


This book is more poetry than prose, each snapshot of their lives presented in short form, a small anecdote, or even just a sentence or two, capturing a moment or feeling as the boys deal with their grief.


The type of book you will be able to dip in and out of and find different meanings each time in the same sentences.


I’m not sure it would have been the title I would have picked to win the award for best Fiction 2016 – it feels different to fiction somehow, a category of it’s own, an outpouring of emotion, and not the sort of book I would normally read.


But I’m glad I did – and I’m pleased I got to present Porter with his award, because it certainly deserves recognition.


My Top 10 Books of 2016


About this time last year I revealed my Top 10 books of the year (check what they were here). I enjoyed doing it so much, that I’m going to do it again this year. One little rule – I’m excluding all the Harry Potters because otherwise my Top four would be dominated by him,.


Like many TV clip shows at the end of the year, you’ll have seen most of this before, but there is also some brand new content to keep you interested – as well as the drama of a countdown.


We’ll start – as is often traditional in Top Ten countdowns – at Number Ten…


  1. This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell


A story about the construction then the subsequent demolition of the relationship between Daniel and Claudette. We witness all the moments around the big arguments and the big decisions, and the characters are richer for it. The ending seems inevitable, but it makes it even more satisfying when we get there.


  1. The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley


A deeply mysterious book, one that describes the cold, wet countryside of England so well, that I feel cold even thinking about it now. What’s it about? It’s hard to describe. A pilgrimage of sorts to the eponymous Loney, an attempt to cure the protagonist’s brother. But it has an ending that stays with you.


  1. See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt


A retelling – or in my case, just the telling – of the story of Lizzie Borden. A brilliant piece of writing that presents the facts of the case, plus some suppositions to help the reader come to their own conclusion to what happened on that August day. Fascinating and creepy in equal measure. Definitely one to keep on the bookcase for a re-read.


  1. Seven Ways We Lie – Riley Redgate


A bit of a guilty pleasure, and am a bit surprised to see it so high up my list for 2016. It’s a fluffy and throwaway story about an American high school and a rumour that rockets around its corridors. I found it very funny, and a great bit of escapism from some of the heavier fare I usually read.


  1. Mad Girl – Bryony Gordon


One of two non-fiction books on the list…  It’s a book about mental illness, specifically Bryony Gordon’s, but also about YOURS because it’s hard to read about Bryony’s experiences without comparing and contrasting with your own. Some bits make you feel better, some bits make you feel worse, but you’ll come out of this book knowing yourself a bit more (gosh, that sounds American). If you read this and don’t recognise yourself in any of it, then you’re lucky – but hopefully, you’ll understand the rest of us a little bit more.


  1. And I Darken – Kiersten White

The tale of Lady Dracul, a take on Vlad the Impaler. A Game of Thrones style epic that pulls you into the politics of a country a million miles and a million years away from where you are. I’m looking forward to reading more books in this series.


  1. The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink


A tough one – because this is real life. My biggest problem when it comes to Non-Fiction, I either don’t care because there’s no sensible narrative (spoiler, there is no sensible narrative in real life) or I care too much because ‘this really happened, damn it!’. This definitely falls into the latter – with the tragic story of a girl growing up coping with the result of a tragic accident involving her brother.


  1. The Stranger In My Home – Adele Parks


The only title on my list this year that I haven’t done a full review for, so here’s a mini one, right here.


I read this back in August, and the main reason for not writing a review is that I didn’t know what to say that I’ve not said about Adele before. This is her first contemporary novel since The State We’re In, which is one of my all-time favourites (And FYI, I’m still waiting for a movie adaptation?), and it tells of a couple who learn that their only daughter may in fact not be theirs.


Is everything as it seems? Tense in places, it builds to a wholly surprising but satisfying ending. This is my favourite thing about Adele’s writing. You’re sure you know where it’s going, yet you know there must be something else to it, and there is always something else to it, but until it happens you have absolutely no clue what it is. The clever bit, though, is that it makes perfect sense.


This is Adele’s take on the domestic noir genre that The Girl on the Train spawned, but there is more weight to this, more investment in the characters and much less reliant on a cheap twist. Currently only available in e-book, it’ll be released as a real book in January


  1. Hex – Thomas Olde Heuvelt


A book that starts off as normal as any other, but soon descends into gothic horror. It blends the contemporary world with the ritualistic world of the past and slowly builds it from a calm acceptance to a complete breakdown of civilisation that leaves both hero and anti-hero in a state of shock.


  1. Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave


I called this way back at the beginning of the year. The sheer poetry of the writing alone was enough to make me fall in love with it, but the characters and plot drag you along with it. There’s no more that can be said that I haven’t already said. Just go and read it.




The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

It’s hard to know what to say about The Loney, partly because I’m not entirely sure what happened, and partly because the feeling it gives is somewhat indescribable.


But I’ll try.


First what is the Loney?


It’s a stretch of beach in a place called Coldbarrow along the North English coast, to which a small church group from London makes a regular pilgrimage to every Easter.


The reason for going? The Smiths have two sons, one of them – Hanny – is mute and child-like, and they hope that by praying in a shrine along the Loney will help cure him.


Their younger son is essential Hanny’s carer and seems to be the only one who really understands him.


It’s no spoiler to say that eventually something changes and Hanny aka Andrew is able to speak. We know this, because the story is told to us through the eyes of his brother some years later.


What we don’t know, is how it happened.


The group’s trip is led by Father Bernard, a new priest to the parish after Father Wilfred’s death. He and the younger son – he nicknames Tonto – provide much of the heart of the book, perhaps the most relatable characters of the book.


That doesn’t mean the other characters aren’t well drawn, but there is something off about them, about ‘Mummer’ and ‘Farther’, the elderly Belderboss’ and the villagers of Coldbarrow.


On top of it all, there’s the Moorings, the house they’re staying in, the home of a taxidermist, no longer there, but his presence still felt with his belongings, and his work still surrounding the home. At one point a secret room is found, despite the fact they’ve all been going there for years, but this doesn’t at all seem odd in this house.


Lastly, there is Hanny himself. He’s had to find a way to communicate without words, and only his brother really understands him. A toy dinosaurs means I’m sorry. A jar of nails indicates he has a headache. And a gorilla mask means he’s frightened.


There’s a chilling moment late on in the book, when Hanny says nothing, but moves to the corner of the room, putting his gorilla mask on. That conjured up an image in my head that will sit, uncomfortably with me for a long time.


We’re seeing all of them through the eyes of Hanny’s brother – I don’t think we learn his name, though I’m sure someone refers to him as James at one point – who is clearly unsettled throughout the visit to the Loney.


Of course, all of this IS told through his own words many years later, so it’s possible, considering the events that take place, that he has mythologised it in his own head, and that things weren’t quite as weird as he makes them out to be.


But however he’s reached this version of the story, the whole thing is gloomy. There is a pervading sense of greyness, and I think I was cold on the inside throughout reading it, as if I was there. The word that most people will probably use for this book is ‘gothic’ but I’m not sure if that is the right word.


Gloomy works for me. There is a gloomy, tense atmosphere throughout, and the writing really makes you believe that the village of Coldbarrow has probably never seen a ray of sunshine throughout it’s history.


The boy – James, whatever his name is – theorises at one point that there are parts of England that nobody has stepped foot on in hundreds of years, and you can well believe it having read this book.


A really atmospheric book with an ending that doesn’t quite give you all the answers, I can see how this won the Costa First Novel award.


This is the sort of book you should read in one sitting on a wet Sunday afternoon with a large bucket of tea. I’m giving it 3.8 out of 5.