Thursday, January 8, 2015

David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green": Book Review

As an American reader about eight years older than Mitchell and his somewhat alter-ego, stammering, nearly-thirteen Jason Taylor in "muddy Worcestershire" in 1982, I found this story compelling, and the musical and cultural, slangy references entertaining if of course sometimes baffling. Combining familiarity with distance, dealing with what's now thirty years ago, makes for an engaging narrative, full of the torments which adolescence causes, and vividly related in ways that will revive long-buried memories of similar youthful distress for many.

That's the secret of "Black Swan Green." It revives in great, loving, anguished detail what it's like to be a picked-on boy in school, in his village, and by his family, at least in his eyes. We never take our eyes off of Jason, and his presence wins us over, for all his gawkiness. Mitchell's skill shows as he keeps us always in the vivid present tense of Jason, and we adjust to his pace as he tries to better himself by winning respect from his tormenters, revenge on a few in particular, and to act ethically in a convincing scene when nobody else is looking to see how he will resolve his temptation. That this is followed soon by Jason's own act of vengeance makes the juxtaposition all the more convincing.

Similarly, scenes which might have come off as mawkish or contrived don't feel other than out of the ordinary routine for our narrator. These can be dramatic, most of all as we learn about the Falklands War via broadcasts, rumor, and then fact as the community's jingoistic air fades to a more measured reaction to that campaign once its costs are felt in his village. The Cold War, we are reminded, is still alive, and Reagan and Thatcher square off against foes nearer to Southern Britain and so all the more frightening to an imaginative, sensitive boy. But Mitchell can also enrich the small scale shifts in daily life for Jason.

A conversation about old watches with an American saleswoman, another with an Irish emigrant who helps him out one day in town, and a third with Gypsies all unfold to offer information and context without seeming as if Mitchell's dumping data in or simply trying to shake us out of any plot doldrums. He also hints, in retrospect, at a key development off-stage which will effect the narrator at the novel's conclusion. Mitchell plays fair, surprising us while not tricking us.

It's not all whining. A clever vignette offers an eccentric art teacher, Mr. Dinwoodie, whom Jason stumbles upon one day after class. The teacher's reading George Bataille's "Story of the Eye." Deadpan in the audio reading I heard, he assures the boy that as is clear from its title, it's a book about the history of opticians. Mitchell conveys this deadpan too, from the perspective of Jason at 13.

Praise for Kirby Heyborne's audiobook. At first, hearing 11 discs as opposed to reading "Cloud Atlas" and "Ghostwritten" (both reviewed earlier in 2013; in 2014, "Number9Dream" and "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet"), the domestic and small-town drama felt overwrought, too peckish, too preoccupied with slang, trivia, and petty disputes. It may in retrospect feel too digressive, but others may counter that this length allows much more character insight than a tidier, quicker narrative would afford. Gradually, as Heyborne portrays hesitant, confused, eager-to-please Jason, we warm to his predicament. His inner conflict with his own naysayers, nicknamed by him "maggot" if echoing his schoolyard bullies, "hangman" if mocking his stammering, and "unborn twin" if indulging in sarcasm or irony, widen the consciousness of Jason, beneath the written register.

Finally, although this is only the third Mitchell novel I've finished, it's fun to see his interconnections again. Neil Brose, here a "golden boy" of the school, will get an early comeuppance akin to that in "Ghostwritten" about fifteen years later when he's a financial trader in Hong Kong. Madame Crommelynck, from Belgium, will invite Jason to her estate, and we hear a hint of a composer's tale which will become Robert Frobisher's own in "Cloud Atlas" fifty years earlier. At his first dance, Jason will at last be happy while hearing John Lennon's "Number 9 Dream," the title of the previous of Mitchell's finely observed novels--which are less deceptively low-key and "ordinary" as is this coming-of-age tale. (Amazon US without hyperlinks or 2014 novels, 8-19-13)

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