Saturday, July 21, 2007

Reader's Diary #269- David Mitchell: Black Swan Green (FINISHED)

While the constant pop culture reminders that it was 1982 didn't ease off, I ended up loving the book despite them.

Without giving much away, Black Swan Green details a year in the life of thirteen year old Jason Taylor. Inevitably, this means two things: 1. it is referred to as a coming-of-age story and 2. it is compared to Catcher In The Rye. I'll address each of these in turn:

1. As I understand the term, Black Swan Green is a coming-of-age story. Those stories usually entail someone at a stage in their life when thoughts are making the transition from child to adult, from self-centred to more socially aware. Typically there are suggestions of inner turmoil and the central character attempts to find conclusions to newly arisen questions about themselves and the world at large. In this regard, Black Swan Green is no exception. Set in the unremarkable English village of Black Swan Green during the Margaret Thatcher era, Jason tries his best to cope with his insecurities, the deteriorating marriage of his parents, and fear of the war with Argentina.

2. It is not, despite claims by Kirkus Reviews or The New Republic, much like Catcher In The Rye. Nor is it the "Great Britain" Catcher In The Rye or Catcher In The Rye "for the 80s". Both novels are well written coming-of-age stories, but that's it. In fact, Jason Taylor is probably more like Kevin Arnold from the Wonder Years than Holden Caulfield. Caulfield, as I remember him, was much more angst-ridden. Jason, although worried about bullies and fitting in, is much more typical, much less extreme.

While some might feel the novel is slow paced, the charisma of Jason was enough to hold my attention. While I wasn't bullied like him, I could easily relate to his teenage necessity to fit in, to hold back certain personality traits and interests out of fear of rejection or setting himself apart. He struggled to hold onto his principles, even when it meant almost certain ridicule. I also felt drawn to him because he was a poet. He chose to write under a pseudonym in order to fulfill his need to write but not be mocked for the peculiar drive. As such, David Mitchell was able to get away with things a lot of other authors couldn't. I remember hearing complaints over Heather O'Neill's Lullabies For Little Criminals (also compared to Catcher In The Rye) that protagonist Baby used prose that was too flowery and unbelievable for a girl her age. Arguably, a poet like Jason Taylor would use such language.

I also enjoyed the unique time reference in which the story is being told. Unlike some of these tales which are told presumably (or clearly) from an adult looking back and remembering, Jason seems to have written most of this story shortly after it happened. It's still in the past tense, but you know it's a recent past. In fact, at about halfway through the book, he talks about having written the first few chapters during a detention. That difference sets the book apart from a lot of others that I have read and makes it all the more enjoyable. The language still comes across as a teenager, using popular slang of the time ("that ace song") and dialect ("S'pose Dad'd been mangled by a juggernaut). It seems like a year that's still being processed, perhaps at 14 years of age, rather than at 40, when he's had 27 years to consider what it all meant.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

For some reason, I never tire of coming of age stories (perhaps it's the unresolved teenage tendancies), so I think I'll need to add this one to the list.

Have you read the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time? I loved the way that one combined teen sensibilities with autistic perceptions.

Gentle Reader said...

After reading Cloud Atlas, I put this on my list. I really like the way Mitchell writes, so I'm interested to see what he does with a coming-of-age story. Thanks for the review!

John Mutford said...

Barbara: I don't think I'd tire of coming-of-age stories either but, like dystopian fiction, it's probably best for me to put some space between them. You'd probably enjoy this one actually; I think you'd have fun with the language of the place and hey, there's even a Jesus and Mary Chain reference.

Yes, I did read Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time. I don't remember how I felt about it but I think I enjoyed the take on telling a story from that perspective, but disappointed in the mystery aspect. Do you have a favourite coming-of-age novel?

Gentle Reader: I haven't read Cloud Atlas but I've heard so much about it. I should probably give it a try. I knew a few people who had said they were planning on reading this book, so I tried my best to stay away from spoliers! I'm looking forward to reading your post.

John Mutford said...

Stephanie also wrote an excellent review available here.

John Mutford said...

Read Matt's review here.

John Mutford said...

Read Raidergirl's here.