Book reviews are supposed to be written from a disinterested standpoint, they are supposed to stay between hyperbole and underplaying, avoid hero-worship and personal prejudices alike. Most of all they must be restrained. Restrain, in particular, I cannot bring in my appraisal of Black Swan Green, or in writing of David Mitchell's superhuman talents that shine through his oeuvre of just four novels. His previous novels, which made the world of literature stand up and applaud his pathbreaking contributions, were also exercises in complex pyrotechnics - they brought together several remarkable, seemingly disparate tales all set in completely different worlds and eras by startling connections which would be found when the reader would least expect, or look for them; his narratives were always inventive - a minor character in one tale of a novel emerges as the narrator of some subsequent one in the novel - or - complex chronology of events which goes back in time step by step only to come back step by step to the present, or even to the future, among other boggling things. Black Swan Green, in complete contrast, is a straight story of a boy of thirteen, and of thirteen months in his life. It looks like an experiment in going one eighty degrees from his mastery, but even if it is, it beats seasoned writers of dense, concentrated, one-life tales on a lot of counts.
Jason Taylor, the protagonist, is a boy who is undemonstrative, shy, somewhat timid. He reminds me of Swami in RK Narayan's 'Swami and Friends' but also, he reminds me of myself, the one who was thirteen year old, because in so many years the two of you - the present you and the thirteen year old you almost appear like two different persons. Of course, in actuality, 'you never change who you are', just to quote Rocky, weirdly, from the movie I saw when I was thirteen. Now I am really getting an irking feeling this isn't turning out to be a book-review, of all things. Heck, I am not sending it to some literary journal, so who cares.
I would not say the story is unbelievable, and that's a thing that, for me, goes for it rather than against it. It is not a novel of artificial thrills, of twists, of walloping coincidences. In stead, it is a true from T to E photoshoot inside the mind and heart of the character.
Among the ideas it explores, of note is the one chapter devoted to his stammer. The novel will thankfully bring a lot of people to understand the plight of kids growing up with speech impediments, for it is something that hasn't adequately been dissected in literature, except to evoke sadist humour. The faint revelation that many more people than those openly identified as stammerers are those who have just come to working arrangements for passing it all okay, is particularly important for public information. Jason's life, as anyone else's, is a web of small troubles, but what is so endearing to me about it is that he invokes your sympathy/empathy without inviting it.
David Mitchell has come to be regarded as a master ventriloquist, after he took the voice of such diverse narrators with clinical precision in all his stories. In Black Swan Green, he is near perfect as a thirteen year old kid wanting not to be a kid. Which is a great thing, but not if you are someone who has been pitch perfect in your previous attempts. However, on instances on which he deviates from his usual early-teenager voice, he also delights. His John Banvillian imaginative influences pour out spoiling the unifying, childish voice, and you sit wondering if that particular sentence is apt from the mouth of a thirteen year old. Sometimes, I concede, they are not. 'Listening's reading if you close your eyes', ‘Sunlight on waves is drowsy tinsel.’, ‘Rooks craw … craw … crawed, like old people who’ve forgotten why they’ve come upstairs.’ - to point out just a few.
I won't reveal the plot for I would rather want people to read it for themselves. It is not for me, however, to recommend Black Swan Green for reading, for that should come out of one's own volition, but I would say that it commands, yes that's the word, reading, out of its own strengths. Twice.