Once a poem's left home it doesn't care about you. (146)
Jason Taylor is a thirteen year old bastion of early 80s suburban torment, child to sniping parents, terrified into sullenness by his own stammer, desperate to maintain his middle-ranking status at his comprehensive school (not cool enough to hang out with the bullies, not geeky - or noticeable - enough to be consistently targeted by them), and excruciatingly baffled by his own sexuality.
Eliot Bolivar, by contrast, is a dashing poet, published in the Black Swan Green parish newsletter, capable of transforming the torture of Jason's daily social encounters into the meat of poetic observation.
And no one knows that these two people are in fact the same - or so Jason believes.
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell - whose Cloud Atlas was so acclaimed and has sat neglected on my shelf for too long - is a detailed study of the mundane events of Jason's youth: the slow disintegration of his parents' marriage, his fear of their judgement, his daily struggle with thuggish brutes who either want to coopt him or pummel him, and his encounters with a series of flamboyant teachers. Most notable of these teachers is the forceful Madame Crommelynck, an aggressive bohemian who promises to nurture him as a poet. He is entranced by her artistic background, complete with a romantic genius of a father, a suicidal lover, and a flight from the Nazis, and pores over the artefacts and photographic remnants of that past:
A bride and groom pose outside a flinty chapel. Bare twigs says it's winter. The groom's thin lips say, Look what I've got. A top hat, a cane, half fox. But the bride's half lioness. Her smile's the idea of a smile. She knows more about her new husband than he knows about her. Above the church door a stone lady gazes up at her stone knight. Flesh-and-blood people in photographs look at the camera, but stone people look through the camera straight at you. (157)
You can see here the spareness of Mitchell's language, but also a playfulness with both word and image that we see more often in poetry than prose. Does the groom's "Look what I've got" encompass the bride, or simply the trappings of privilege - the hat, cane, fur? Is the half fox merely an item, or is it a description of him, the equivalent of her "half lioness"? The inanimate eyes of the statue can see through history straight into Jason's secrets, as if bodies that have never lived are exempt from the strictures of time and pretense.
For a time it seems that we know what kind of a coming-of-age story this will be - a tale of mentoring, in which the quirky guidance of the epigrammatic Mme. Crommelynck will guide Jason into a more honest sense of self. But then Madame is whisked away, a victim to her own secrets, and it becomes clear that in Black Swan Green as in Harry Potter, teachers can't do the working of growing up for you.
Primary school seemed so huge then. How can you be sure anything is ever its real size? (226)
At first the youthful concerns of the novel (bullying, nascent sexuality, parental approval, being perceived as cool), its diction that perches precariously between surly catchphrases ("That's epic!") and self-conscious poetry, and its gleeful insistence on reminding us just what 1982 looked like culturally, may fool you (as it did me) into thinking that it is a surprisingly slight book. But oddities recur with literary frequency. Ringing phones haunt the households Jason occupies and visits, the unheard and ignored voices on the other end implying the mundane catastrophes that lie in wait for the houses' secrets to be made known. Secrets are the core of this novel, and, it reveals, at the core of virtually every YA novel, after-school special, and coming-of-age story. Puberty is the time when, new to the capacity for certain types of abstract thought and awoken by sexuality to new dimensions of social belonging and exclusion, we are forced to make decisions (seemingly final, but not truly so) about our identity, both about how we see ourselves and how we wish others to see us.
In one of the novel's most delightful scenes, another of Jason's many teacher-figures gives her class a truly brilliant lesson on secrecy, beginning with this exchange:
"But what is a secret?"Reputation and the construction of identities is at the core of all this secrecy. Jason's stutter is among his biggest secrets, but it quickly becomes obvious that only he considers it so. But this is because it is something he believes both defines him and should not define him. What will happen, he has to ask himself, if the bullies at school find that he is Eliot Bolivar? They will exclude and persecute him; he will never belong. But does he want to be a poet or does he want to be a bully?
It takes everyone a bit of time to get going after lunch.
"Well, say, is a secret a thing you can see? Touch?"
Avril Bredon put her hand up.
"A secret's a piece of information that not everyone knows."
"Good. A piece of information that not everyone knows. Information about ... who? You? Somebody else? Something? All of these?"
After a gap, a few kids murmured, "All of these."
"Yes, I'd say so too. But ask yourselves this. Is a secret a secret if it isn't true?" (264)
There is a wooded area of Black Swan Green, a town that is a transitional hybrid between a yuppie suburb and a farming community, where the kids go to play out games of violence and connection, and to which Jason flees whenever he wants to escape the pressure of quotidian secrecy. This is truly a "green world" in Northrop Frye's usage, a liminal space to play out forbidden struggles with eros and thanatos, a parallel reality that both defies the structures of normalcy and order and provides its citizens with a place to purge iconoclastic impulses, enabling their safe return to the status quo (A Midsummer Night's Dream, by the way, is the most frequently cited example of a "green world").
The novel in fact begins in this green world, when a pond amidst the trees freezes over and Jason, left alone there, becomes convinced that he can sense all the children who have ever drowned in its waters. He seeks shelter in a cottage straight out of Germanic fairy tale, where he has an encounter so surreal it feels truly baffling, as if we really had suddenly plunged into a folkloric world of magic and madness.
And then the chapter ends, and the incident evaporates as if it had never happened. The only evidence that remains of it is a broken watch, left to Jason by his grandfather, that our hero has smacked against the ice. [My review may contain some SPOILERS about the formal construction of the novel from this point onward.] This is a frequently used strategy of the novel's: chapters end on almost cliffhanging notes of drama, and new ones begin on the next page in an entirely different mental and narrative state. Mitchell repeatedly denies us the satisfaction of resolution and anti-climax over the course of the novel, a device that I found at first disorienting and manipulative.
As the novel progresses, however, we become aware that these narrative disruptions are at least in part a result of the fact that Jason is writing this story, cathartically transforming his painful, mundane life into the stuff of folktales and adventure stories. This is a thrilling realization and it underscores the lightly experiment nature of the novel's construction. The possibility that some of the tale might be fiction and some reality, and that we as readers will never be fully aware of which is which, speaks to all the books most beloved issues of identity-creation and secrecy.
In the final chapters, however, the plot-lines that unraveled so marvelously after each of the abandoned cliffhangers are all tied neatly together. I have to imagine that this is the same feeling Jason got when he discovered, towards the end of the novel, that the forest, his rampaging and chaotic green world, is in fact about the size of a small field: the deflating knowledge that convention has triumphed over the creative richness of uncertainty.
Despite this final feeling of slight deflation, this was a novel that won me over quickly with its wit and readability. In its aftermath, I found myself wishing that I had anything even half as gripping to read. But, alas, once a book has left, it doesn't care about you.
Black Swan Green (2006)