Thursday, April 5, 2007

Kim's Review of Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

294 pages, library, hardback
published in 2006
started 3/29/07, finished 4/5/07

First Sentence: "Do not set foot in my office."

Reason for Reading: The NYT Notable Books Challenge

For his fourth novel, two-time Booker Prize finalist Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, etc.) turns to material most writers plumb in their first: the semi autobiographical, first-person coming-of-age story. And after three books with notably complex narrative structure, far-flung settings, and multiple viewpoints, he has chosen one narrator, 13-year-old Jason Taylor, to tell the story of one year (1982) in one town, Worcestershire's Black Swan Green. Jason starts with the January day he accidentally smashes his late grandfather's irreplaceable Omega Seamaster DeVille watch and ends with Christmas. The gorgeously revealed cast includes Jason's brilliant older sister, sarcastic mother, blustering dad and a spectrum of bullies and mates. Jason's nemesis is an intermittent, fluctuating stammer: some days he must avoid words beginning with N; other days, S. Once he is exposed, the bullies taunt him mercilessly; there is no respite for the weak or disabled in Black Swan Green nor, as the realities of Thatcher's grim reign begin to take their toll, in England writ large.

I had a hard time getting into the book at first because of all the British slang, but I quickly got used to it and got lost in the story of Jason Taylor. There were parts that made me laugh and some that made me cry-who can give better praise than that? A true coming of age story in every sense, each of the 13 chapters reads like its own short story. I am sure everyone remembers what it was like to be 13, where everything is "epic" (as Jason would say). This book captures that feeling beautifully. Some of the best chapters are Jason just being a boy, traveling through the woods to find a lost tunnel, playing games on the frozen lake with friends. But Jason is also very perceptive for a 13 year old. He writes poetry and becomes obsessed with the Falklands war for a bit. And he is all too painfully aware of the slow motion divorce his parents are going through. And through it all, he is battling his own personal demon-his painful stutter (or "Hangman" as Jason calls it). His main goal in life it to hide his stutter from his classmates-and what happens when his secret finally comes out is exactly what Jason feared would happen all along. This was a great book. I would definitely recommend it.

Favorite part:
Some of my favorite chapters are "Spooks", where Jason creeps through the neighbor's backyards in order to join a "secret society"; "Souvenirs", where Jason spends two memorable days with each of his parents; and "Solarium", where Jason meets Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, who teaches his a few things and who is not at all what she seems.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


Wendy said...

I'm glad you loved this as much as I did! I also thought the scenes of Jason just being a kid were the best.

kookiejar said...

I'm glad you brought up, Kim, that each of the chapters was like a short story. I thought so too, but I couldn't find the right words to express that idea. Good review