Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book review: Black Swan Green

I finished reading David Mitchell's bildungsroman*, Black Swan Green, my first morning in Shanghai. Jet-lagged, I awoke at three in the morning Shanghai time, and read the last couple chapters. I'd burned through most of it on the interminable LA-to-Shanghai leg of my trip earlier in the day (or was it the day before?) and so finished the book (and, thus, the Mitchell canon) while engaged in the travel-hustle from one side of the globe to the other.

Black Swan Green is an autobiographical novel about a tween-aged boy in Worcestershire, England in the 80s. Jason Taylor is a thoughtful, decent lad who, like many other teenage boys, is tormented by angst and diffidence. But adding to Jason's woes is his speech impediment (Jason calls it "hangman") which causes him to stammer and has earned him the ridicule of some of his meaner classmates. (Are there any so cruel as middle-school children?) When strange anonymous phone calls start coming to the home Jason shares with his middle-class parents and older sister, Jason's world starts to crumble.

As I said, Black Swan Green completes the Mitchell canon for me. I've now read all five of his thus-far published novels and I'm an unequivocal fan. Black Swan Green is my least favorite.

Which is not to say that Black Swan Green is not a rewarding read. Far from it. With Jason Taylor, Mitchell succeeds in creating a sympathetic protagonist that readers can't help but root for. As Jason faces up to life's challenges, Mitchell's masterful writing brings back memories of what it is like to be a boy on the verge of manhood.

But somehow, Black Swan Green is less ambitious, more condensed in scope, than Mitchell's other novels. While Cloud Atlas spans the globe and encompasses centuries, while Jacob de Zoet explores dark and terrible questions about morality, Black Swan Green is really just a story about being a boy in middle-class England.

The book is billed as an autobiography (Mitchell, like Jason Taylor, has a stammer), so I suppose Mitchell aimed a little lower with this effort than with others. Black Swan Green is firmly rooted in the world that we know and see around us everyday. I wouldn't call it a mundane novel, but it is certainly more so than Mitchell's other bildungsroman, number9dream.

But it's a touching story, a story that is sure to speak to the millions of awkward pre-teen boys struggling to define themselves in a world they discover to be far more complex than they'd previously realized. Definitely worth reading.

And I simply can't wait to see what Mitchell comes up with next.

*(Cool word, eh? bildungsroman : a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.)

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