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Finding the ‘Beautifully Chaotic’ in Grief

Max Porter’s debut novel careens between mocking hilarity and heartbreaking sorrow.

The Emily Dickinson–derived title and featherweight of this remarkable volume should alert you that it is more prose poem than novel, but no less capacious for that. A young woman has died suddenly, leaving two small sons and a devoted husband bereft in their London flat. Friends and family couldn’t be kinder, but father and children are too stunned to grieve.


The widower, “shuffling around, waiting for shock to give way,” feels “hung-empty.” The sons in their pj’s, “brave new boys without a Mum,” wonder, “Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamour of an event like this?” In crashes a huge crow one night—“a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast”—to create both, and more.

Crow, who joins Dad and Boys in a trio of alternating voices in Max Porter’s one-of-a-kind debut, likes to, well, crow: “I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.” He is also a mythic figure out of the poetry of Ted Hughes, about whom Dad was trying to write when tragedy hit. In other words, the screechy trickster is a philosopher of death and rebirth. He keeps his charges, and this book, careening between mocking hilarity and heartbreaking sorrow, with pauses everywhere in between. Grief, the bird says and Porter brilliantly shows, is “the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic.”