This little novella completely floored me.
In 114 pages of half-prose and half-poetry, it speaks from the point of view of a bereaved family – boys who lost their mother and a father who lost his wife. There is a crow in the house with them, an irreverent and slightly absurd character. He’s a caretaker for the bereaved family, come straight out of the book the Dad is writing on Ted Hughes, called Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis.
Told across multiple points of view – Dad, Boys and Crow – and split into three short sections, the book scatters out scenes and memories and memos like ashes. We start with the various sights and sounds of a family in shock, and the crow comes among them, Mary Poppins-like, to stay until not needed any more.
We were small boys with remote control
cars and ink-stamp sets and we knew
something was up. We knew we weren’t
getting straight answers when we asked
‘Where is Mum?’
The verse is painfully accurate in the detail of its observation, or perhaps just of its truthfulness. I recognised so much in the poetic but straightforward articulation of a grieving thought process:
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.
The second section, called Defence of the Nest, has a feeling of fairytale about it. In one scene, a demon that feeds on grief comes to the house, taking various personae to try to get in – a neighbour, someone from the Dad’s publisher, the police, and, saving the worst for last, the dead mother. The ecstatic hope of the family is awful (and I mean that in the best sense) to read, before the protector crow fends off the demon.
This is a book that mixes the mundane with the unworldy. As it flits towards its conclusion, the inevitable time when the crow will not be needed any more, it passes through some beautiful images and ideas. One that is really sticking with me is the description of where loved ones go, after death.
She’ll be way back, before you. She’ll be in the golden days of her childhood. Ghosts do not haunt, they regress. Just as when you need to go to sleep you think of trees or lawns, you are taking instant symbolic refuge in a ready-made iconography of early safety and satisfaction. That exact place is where ghosts go.
It’s such a short book – made shorter by the verse elements, the splitting into three sections, and the way it flits between perspectives, with sometimes less than a page to each one – but it holds a complete journey. A very complete and very sad and very complex and very real journey. It will stay with me for a long time.