Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Black Swan Green / by David Mitchell

Born in Southport in 1969 but raised in the Worcestershire countryside, English author David Mitchell has traveled the world, living in places such as Sicily, Japan and South Africa before ultimately laying down roots in Ireland where he's lived ever since. Two of his first three novels were shortlisted for the Man Booker Award and his most recent, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, made this year's list. His 2007 novel Black Swan Green is a reflection of his own childhood in rural England, his 13th year specifically, where family turmoil, peer approval and girl trouble are all a part of growing up.

Jason Taylor is 13 in 1982. And though his life in a small-town in England is unexciting from the outside looking in, there's certainly nothing mundane about his own daily personal drama. As an adolescent, Jason is involved with the treacherous game of finding out who his friends are, picking his way through the thorny world of peer approval and teen politics. Making things difficult is his speech impediment ("stammering") which tends mark him as a walking target whenever there's a large group of people around. Jason's smart though. He knows the score and gives as well as he gets most of the time. Meanwhile his parents have been fighting a lot lately, and it's increasingly becoming apparent to Jason that a divorce or at least a separation looms as the months pass by and the tension builds between his increasingly preoccupied father and stressed out mother. Things are not all bad. Strange as it may seem, Jason's found himself in the frequent company of classmate Dawn Madden, a popular girl who for some reason likes to hang out with Jason and his friends. But if he's sure of anything, it's that whatever he feels sure of one moment likely won't last long.
Thirteen chapters intricately describe thirteen episodes in the protagonist's life in this starkly revealing book which rings achingly true to life. And while each chapter stands on its own, effectively as its own independent creation, it won't take the reader long to perceive the interconnectedness of each event as Mitchell skillfully threads each of the various, often seemingly tangential strands of the story, interweaving bits and pieces from what no doubt his own well-recollected though not so idyllic as one might assume young adulthood. There's a reason this is not a YA book. And it's not just the frequently indecipherable British slang. Nothing is very optimistic or even frivolous about Mitchell's prose as he subjects his protagonist to life's harsher elements, highlighting an overwhelming proportion of adolescence's more discomforting episodes. Even as Jason's a plucky, resilient character with much to preoccupy him outside of the negative sphere, it's still no fun to experience his world of very ordinary, but strikingly lucid pain and sorrow. Historical anecdotes and pop culture references like the Cold War and British invasion of the Falklands are well tied in to things and even subtle hints of the budding computer age creep on to the stage. But even the nostalgia of say 80's music or movies like Superman or Star Wars can't deviate from the author's painfully somber narrative which pulls no punches and most definitely refuses to shy away from life's crueler, more prevalent side which spares no one no matter what age. (FIC MITCHELL)

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