- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006


By David Mitchell

Random House, $23.95, 304 pages


First novels are often autobiographical. “Write what you know” is common writing-school advice, and many novelists take it to heart.

It’s one reason the coming-of-age novel is so prevalent. Our earliest experiences often affect us deeply — especially the sensitive types — and writers can be a nostalgic breed.

David Mitchell’s first novel was none of these things. “Ghostwritten” consisted of nine interlocking stories, told by nine very different narrators from all over the world. The conceptual novel made Mr. Mitchell one of the most heralded young British writers. His last book, “Cloud Atlas,” helped seal his reputation in the United States. Again featuring interlocking stories, the book travels through the 19th-century South Pacific to 1930s Belgium to Hawaii in a post-apocalyptic future.

Given the author’s reputation as an experimental novelist whose stories span the globe, it’s more than a bit surprising that his fourth book, “Black Swan Green,” is a straight-across narrative of growing up in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Interestingly, it was the first novel Mr. Mitchell started. But he was never satisfied with his work on it, and he published three other books before returning to the one about his childhood.

“Black Swan Green” is clearly autobiographical. Its protagonist, Jason Taylor, is growing up in a Worcester village, the Black Swan Green of the title — just like Mr. Mitchell did. He’s 13 in 1982, the year in which the novel takes place — just like Mr. Mitchell was. And his main problem, the thing he’s most afraid his classmates will discover, is a propensity to stammer — just like Mr. Mitchell had.

In any other hands, this roman a clef could have ended up a disaster; the subject matter is fraught with dangers for a writer. The geeky kid bullied by his more popular peers is something of a cliche. Margaret Thatcher is a rather polarizing figure in Britain, to say the least; it would be tempting to devolve the book into demagoguery. And learning about girls, writers’ apprenticeships and divorce are all topics that have been explored many times before.

But David Mitchell is no ordinary writer. He has an immense talent for voice, bringing the reader deep inside his protagonist’s head. It probably doesn’t hurt that his 13-year-old self shared much in common with Jason Taylor. But that doesn’t diminish Mr. Mitchell’s skills as a communicator. At times, he seems a little too accurate: Jason’s slangy speech, with constructions like “would’ve,” “where’ve,” and even “things’d’ve” can be a bit distracting at first. But the reader soon loses himself in the story.

The book’s 13 chapters each offer one important story from the 13 months from Christmas 1981 to Christmas 1982. It proves to be one of the most important years of Jason’s life, but of course he doesn’t know it at the time. He gets his first kiss, meets his first literary mentor, loses a schoolmate to the Falklands War and witnesses big changes in his parents’ marriage.

There is another trap into which Mr. Mitchell could have fallen. Jason is a sensitive boy, but he can’t be a more perceptive narrator than is believable for a 13-year-old. We realize his parents’ marriage is careening towards a confrontation, but it’s unlikely that he would understand all the subtleties of the situation.

His perceptions are not the less interesting for being immature. Mr. Mitchell had made his alter-ego a budding poet, rather than a novelist; it was a wise choice. Jason is very aware of the world around him, but his literary vocabulary and technique isn’t quite developed yet. The result is some charmingly off-kilter observations.

Here is Jason musing to himself after his friend Dean Moran confides his feelings about how his view of his alcoholic dad is different from the rest of town’s view: “Green is made of yellow and blue, nothing else, but when you look at green, where’ve the yellow and the blue gone? Somehow this is to do with Moran’s dad. Somehow this is to do with everyone and everything. But too many things’d’ve gone wrong if I’d tried to say this to Moran.”

The young poet loves to make metaphors. Barely a page goes by without one. “Hate smells of burnt dead fireworks,” he says after watching two of his bullies go after each other. He deftly assesses the situation in the Falklands, where Britain was at war with Argentina, concluding, “We’re running out of petrol, too. (Like the armed forces of Great Britain just add up to this crap family car.)”

Jason keeps most of these observations to himself. Writing poetry is considered “gay” amongst his set. “If they knew Eliot Bolivar, who gets poems published in ‘Black Swan Green Parish Magazine,’ was me, they’d gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone,” he remarks.

His stutter doesn’t help, either. He calls this demon “Hangman,” because it was during a game at school he first noticed it: all but one letter of “nightingale” filled in, he found he simply couldn’t say the word. It only affects words beginning with certain sounds, though, so Jason becomes adept at being a human thesaurus.

“Apart from the Russians starting a nuclear war, my biggest fear is if Hangman gets interested in J-words, ‘cause then I won’t even be able to say my own name,” he says in a line typical of the way Mr. Mitchell manages to combine the zeitgeist of the 1980s with Jason’s very personal problems.

In the end, Jason’s year turns out to be like any other important time. There is some closure, some learning, but not all the loose ends of life are easily tied up. “The world’s a headmaster who works on your faults,” Jason decides at the end. “I don’t mean in a mystical or a Jesus way. More how you’ll keep tripping over a hidden step, over and over, till you finally understand: Watch out for that step!”

Jason Taylor is a philosophical young teenager. But luckily, he’s also endearingly imperfect. Mr. Mitchell has created a very singular protagonist who reminds us about the universal difficulties of growing up.

Kelly Jane Torrance is fiction editor of Doublethink and arts and culture editor of Brainwash. She is also books columnist for The American Enterprise Online. Her website on culture can be found at www.kellyjanetorrance.com.

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