This book is extraordinary.
It is strange and bizarre and wild. And has the vividness and opacity of a nightmarish dreamscape. It is literary and visceral, erudite and scatological, mythic and domestic at the same time.
Death and grief are such massive topics that you expect a weighty tome to contain them. Yet this is light and airy and brief. Barely a hundred pages. Half a day’s reading. And that itself is divided between Dad, Boys and the eponymous Crow who arrives as… what exactly? A symbol? A metaphor? A nightmare? A delusion? A nanny?
The novel – is it even a novel? – revolves around the family dragged apart by a woman, mother and wife. Her husband, a somewhat nerdy literary critic, is writing a book on the crow in Ted Hughes’ poetry entitled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis and that is an obvious source for the crow-character who appears thus:
The bell rang again.
I climbed down the carpeted stairs into the chilly hallway and opened the front door.
There were no streetlights, bins or paving stones. No shape or light, no form at all, just a stench.
There was a crack and a whoosh and I was smacked back, winded, onto the doorstep. The hallway was pitch black and freezing cold and I thought, ‘What kind of world is it that I would be robbed in my home tonight?’ And then I thought, ‘Frankly, what does it matter?’ I thought, ‘Please don’t wake the boys, they need their sleep. I will give you every penny I own just as long as you don’t wake the boys.’
I opened my eyes and it was still dark and everything was crackling, rustling.
There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.
Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor.
One shiny jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket, bulging out from a football-sized testicle.
And this is what he said:
I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.
Put me down, I said.
Not until you say hello.
Put. Me. Down, I croaked, and my piss warmed the cradle of his wing.
You’re frightened. Just say hello.
Say it properly.
The prose swings back and forward in time, and out of time, from narrative to drama to poetry to narrative again. It is as wild and untamed as the crow itself.
It was very powerful, reading this close to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk – which is itself a beautiful and lyrical book. But it is a weightier work than this; and simultaneously more lyrical and less poetical. Porter – like a poet – consciously crafts not just the words but the architecture and structure of his page; like a poet, he eschews all those little things that I’ve spent the holidays planning to teach students: conjunctions, connectives, clarity. And like a poet, having stripped away all of that superfluous and pedantic padding, his book can perhaps reach inside the reader – the a crow’s beak delving into carrion? – more acutely than other styles.
I am in no way trying to step back from the 5 stars I gave Macdonald’s – although I am just wondering what the value is in such a crude system of comparing such strikingly different books – all the more striking because of their similarities.