I found a hardcover edition of David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green in Wagga Wagga K-Mart selling for $7.00. I had never heard of the author or the book, but the blurb and the bargain price gave enough incentive for me to buy it.
It was after I’d finished the book that I found out that Mitchell had been twice shortlisted for the Mann Booker prize, and that this particular book had made the long list. That discovery made me wonder whether I should have liked the book more than I did.
The book wasn’t a disappointment. I DID enjoy reading it and it WAS the first book for a long time to keep my interest from beginning to end. Unlike many other books it didn’t get put aside for a lengthy period prior to finishing. But I’m not sure it was worthy of consideration for what is supposed to be one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes.
Apart from the bargain price, what attracted me to THIS book instead of one of the others in the bargain bin? Mainly because it was about a young teenage boy growing up in the English Midlands and until I turned thirteen, I had also been a Midlands boy. Mitchell’s story about 13 year old Jason Taylor to a degree continued where my experience of English village life ended with my family’s move to Australia. Despite the 10 year gap between Jason’s time and my own there remained enough familiarity to recognise a lot of his story and environment.
The book looks at 13 months of Jason’s life at the beginning of puberty. We are not given a continuous narrative, but each chapter is like a short story of Jason's month by month experiences. Not all of these experiences are given full and immediate closure, but their outcome is revealed in hints throughout subsequent chapters. This approach is something I find appealing and has a slight similarity to Tim Winton’s technique in The Turning, where Winton used distinctly separate short stories to bring together an overall narrative linked by common characters. Mitchell’s book however maintains a more significant focus on the one person’s experience.
Jason faces all of the usual teenage anxieties of relating with family and being accepted by peers. The book shows how fluid and changeable concerns about those relationships can be and how successful manoeuvring through those changes is often dependant upon the image someone is able to create and maintain. Jason, having a persistent stammer has an obvious disadvantage regarding his perceived place among his peers.
Reviews of Mitchell’s books mention his uses of unconventional writing styles. Black Swan Green seems like it must be more conventional than his previous works, but it still has the interesting handling of narrative continuity mentioned above. While I wasn’t completely won over by this book I’m grateful for the introduction it gave me to David Mitchell and I look forward to trying his other novels.
For more information see: blackswangreen