Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review: Black Swan Green

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell
10/10, a coming-of-age story that is evocative and engaging

Life is tough when you're thirteen, and nobody knows that better than Jason Taylor. In the English parish of Black Swan Green, we are introduced to the ranks of Jason's class of schoolboys through an afternoon on a frozen lake, in a game of British Bulldogs, played thus: they split into two sides, and when the non-Bulldogs capture a Bulldog, he has to join their side on the next attack. Jason hates this game, not just because of the physical nature of the attacks, but because you're forced to turn and betray your friends.

Jason peppers his narrative with observations like that, coming across as a thirteen-year-old making discoveries about life. He walks us through the life of a boy who not only has to navigate the perilous social strata of the schoolyard, but also a tumultuous family life and a personal issue, a stammer that comes up so subtly that he almost sneaks it up on us. He personifies the directions in which his teenaged pysche pulls him, assigning a personality to each of his impulses. One of the strongest is the Hangman, the one who seizes his tongue and makes him stammer. It's no coincidence that his biggest fear is his stammer being discovered.

Cloud Atlas proved Mitchell to be gifted at narrative voice. We see that gift here, not only in Jason, but in the personalities of his world in Black Swan Green parish. And although the story reads at first like a series of diary entries, it soon acquires a coherence thanks to the different plot threads that recur: his sister's boyfriends and transition to law school; his parents' struggle to maintain their marriage; his own personal trauma involving his grandfather's watch; the odd social stratification in the parish that is rarely brought to the surface but always lurks just beneath it.

But Black Swan Green is much more than simply an exercise in character. It's a full-fledged story, engaging enough to bring me back to it night after night, with (a rarity) a believable and satisfying (and beautiful) ending. You might find the slang difficult to follow at first, but Mitchell knows just how to use it with enough context to give you the meaning, and eventually you won't even ask what "poncy" or "sarky" mean.

If you thought Cloud Atlas was too esoteric, give this one a whirl. It's more accessible and just as good.

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