I went to hear David Mitchell read from his new book the same day I cracked the spine and started reading it. I highly recommend doing this with your favorite authors, too – hearing them read their own work gives you a great sense of how it was written. But look, this is a city of writers, so there wasn’t a single writer in the room who could decide between hugging Mitchell and strangling him. Because it only took about two pages of Black Swan Green to realize that while on the surface it seems pretty different from his prior three novels, damnit, it’s just as good.
Mitchell is that rare creature – possessed of a literary talent that stretches like a rubber band around the often massive plots he creates. So with Ghostwritten, Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas spanning the globe and history itself, Black Swan Green seems a bit the oddity, staying in one place, for one year, in one character. Before I read it, I wondered if Mitchell was even capable of that. Could he help himself from putting a futuristic robot or syphilitic poet in there? (For lovers of Mitchell’s earlier books, though, he tosses in beloved former characters like delightful cameo easter-eggs.)
Black Swan Green is possibly more autobiographical, it’s true, than any prior novels. Jason Taylor is a thirteen-year-old boy in Worcestershire in 1982, with a deceptively placid home life and a stutter he can’t rid himself of. Mitchell pits him against his own foe, the stutter he refers to as Hangman, and pits him against other foes, too – bullying, outsider-ness, and girls.
This novel is quieter, more tempered, than any of Mitchell’s novels. I got the sense that this tranquility of scene was almost a challenge for his writing, which has always benefited from how carelessly he can toss his themes through six different vignettes and still succeed. The question might have been, could he sit still? And he did. Black Swan Green is only more mainstream on the surface. Mitchell’s strengths are still here and loud. Taylor’s voice, as a sensitive but struggling thirteen-year-old boy … it’s immaculate. There’s no other word for it. It’s spot on, in every scene, with every word. So rarely have I ever been as knee-deep in a character’s mind – J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield (from Catcher in the Rye) and Kate Atkinson’s Ruby Lennox (from Behind the Scenes at the Museum) spring immediately to mind when I consider how exclusively and comprehensively Mitchell writes the narrative.
Also strong is Mitchell’s ability to leap effortlessly from simple, straight forward scenes into moments of panic or confusion that question the reader’s interpretation of reality. In one moment, Taylor feels like a thirteen-year-old boy on a walk and the next he’s … being chased by a wolf? Trapped in a haunted house? It’s jarring and a skill that’s uniquely Mitchell’s and while it’s not as consistently on display here as it was in Cloud Atlas, it ties Black Swan Green strongly to his style.
But perhaps the best thing about the novel, aside from all these glowing bits of praise, is how genre-defying it is. Jason Taylor isn’t a hero, and he doesn’t go from boy to man in the course of a year. He goes from boy to older boy. It’s praise I don’t give lightly because writing a young character and resisting the temptation to make the lessons he learns Capitalized Ones isn’t easy. We foist catalysts and revelations on the young when really, they’re often simply muddling through and only learning their lessons much later. The single greatest accomplishment of such a quiet, unassuming book is that it lets our thirteen year old be simply that – a thirteen year old. Who, yes, is experiencing sea changes and life lessons every day but who’s still, in the end, more of a boy and less of an afterschool special. And, best of all, Jason Taylor does all this and is endearing and captivating as well. A lot like a grown-up David Mitchell.