Monday, 1 July 2013

Black Swan Green - David Mitchell

From award-winning writer David Mitchell comes a sinewy, meditative novel of boyhood on the cusp of adulthood and the old on the cusp of the new.

Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an exquisitely observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys’ games on a frozen lake; of “nightcreeping” through the summer backyards of strangers; of the tabloid-fueled thrills of the Falklands War and its human toll; of the cruel, luscious Dawn Madden and her power-hungry boyfriend, Ross Wilcox; of a certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an elderly bohemian emigrĂ© who is both more and less than she appears; of Jason’s search to replace his dead grandfather’s irreplaceable smashed watch before the crime is discovered; of first cigarettes, first kisses, first Duran Duran LPs, and first deaths; of Margaret Thatcher’s recession; of Gypsies camping in the woods and the hysteria they inspire; and, even closer to home, of a slow-motion divorce in four seasons.

Pointed, funny, profound, left-field, elegiac, and painted with the stuff of life, Black Swan Green is David Mitchell’s subtlest and most effective achievement to date.

I love David Mitchell. It's just a fact. Every book of his I read reminds me of that with every word. I picked up Black Swan Green a few nights ago and within a paragraph I thought to myself, 'Why do I read anything by anyone else?' So if you can't tell already, this review is going to be oh so ridiculously positive.

David Mitchell is better known for Cloud Atlas, a remarkable novel fractured into pieces and told from many different points of view. The other novel I've read by him, Ghostwritten, was similar in that it was many different stories put together to form one idea. I fell in love with both of them pretty much immediately which is why it took me a bit to actually read Black Swan Green as it was so different from his two previous novels.

Black Swan Green tells the story of Jason Taylor, a thirteen year old boy growing up in small town England in the early eighties. Each chapter covers a day or two in each month, illustrating different facets in Jason's life and showing a slowly creeping narrative of families, friendships and growth. I was captivated.

Jason is our narrator and an inspired voice it is. Jason is just discovering many things but he has a poetic mind, always fronting but incredibly naive, instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever been thirteen. His voice is easy to fall into and definitely unique, calling to mind childhood and curiosity. His relationships with his friends (and enemies), his parents and just people he meets in the town drive this novel and you find yourself always rooting for him, despite some of the stupid things he does. Deep down, though, he's a great kid that just wants to do the right thing and completely lovable.

Something Mitchell does quite regularly is involve characters from his other novels into new stories. Although I experienced this in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, I was not expecting it in Black Swan Green. However, in one of the chapters, Jason gets some tutelage from an elderly woman who some might remember as a young girl in Cloud Atlas. I was thrilled when I put two and two together and it added a whole new dimension to that chapter. Whereas normal readers of the book would have completely enjoyed it regardless, readers who had read his earlier work would have gotten an extra layer of meaning from some of the conversations and that is why I call Mitchell a genius.

Each chapter could be a short story on its own but together they form a lovely mosaic of a young life. Personally, I think everyone should read at least one Mitchell in their lifetime (which hopefully will convince them to read more) and if you're not big on fractured narratives or science fiction, than this one is probably for you. Instantly relatable, painfully real, Black Swan Green is absolutely stupendous. Take a trip down to your local bookstore and treat yourself.

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