Friday, 12 September 2014

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

This is a very different outing from the previous two David Mitchell books I've read. Instead of interconnected tales, spanning time and space and genre, it's a very straight-forward novel about growing up in England in the 1980s. It's really good at what it does, though. Even if it did keep popping Adrian Mole into my head.

Let me explain that a little bit. This book is nothing like Sue Townsend's comic masterpieces. This is much more serious, much quieter, much more complex. But strangely, it takes place around the same time that some of the Adrian Mole books were written, so although the foregrounds are nothing alike, the backgrounds are surprisingly similar, from the mentions of names of stores and candies and the material culture of England in the 1980s, to the way children were exposed to and responded to the Falkland War.

In the way Jason, the main character, was following and initially supported the Falkland War, I was reminded of Adrian Mole and his interest. But since this isn't comedy about a gormless young man, it becomes part of how Jason realizes that what he's told isn't always the same as the way things are. It also brings tragedy home to this small town in a way this generation was unfamiliar with.

Now I'd like to put the Adrian Mole comparison aside. It was interesting to see how 1980s English culture soaked through both books, but Black Swan Green is something quite different. I'm finding it hard to put my finger exactly on how to describe it. It's a novel about growing up, but it isn't simple or saccharine. It has an interesting way of drifting through a year or so in this town, without feeling the need to hit every event.

It's the story of a boy trying very hard to assert his place in a hierarchy of boys who can be swift, sudden, and cruel. There are insights here about how children treat each other that ring true even while they are unsettling. Oh, but I'm not doing well. I'm making this sound like an issue book when it isn't.

I suppose it's also about finding your voice, but again, take that in the least facile way possible. The main character stammers, which haunts his days at school, knowing full well what would happen if it becomes apparent. (There's a discussion here about the difference between stuttering and stammering.) Jason is also making first steps towards writing poetry, and, thank heaven, at that he's better than Adrian Mole, although it's apparent that his initial works are promising but nothing like precociously good.

Behind all that is the slow disintegration of Jason's parents' marriage, which is painted in in light but unmistakable strokes. This is the year where everything changes and nothing changes. Where the biggest events are sometimes the smallest, although the newsworthy tragedies also loom large. Mitchell just puts his finger so astutely on the rhythms of life that it's kind of staggering.

Thanks to my friend Rob for the loan of the book! I haven't yet found a David Mitchell book I don't like, and it was great fun to be handed this one.

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