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David Mitchell
Black Swan Green
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006

Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 1-400-06379-5
Publication Date: 04-11-2006
298 Pages; $23.95
Date Reviewed: 04-27-06

Index: General Fiction  Fantasy

It was William Blake who, in his poem Auguries of Innocence, suggested that it was possible, "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour." David Mitchell is a prodigiously talented writer who routinely skips around the world, encompasses eternity, infinity and pretty much everything in between. In works like 'Ghostwritten' and 'Cloud Atlas', he's demonstrated an ease with the epic that inclines one to believe that with 'Black Swan Green', he's limiting himself in some fashion. This is, after all, clearly a novel with limits. 'Black Swan Green' follows thirteen months in the life of a thirteen year-old boy who remains pretty much in the titular township of Black Swan Green. Things get odd around the edges, but there are apparently none of the flights of fancy that readers have encountered in Mitchell's other novels. The novel is distinctly and deliberately autobiographical. Presumably 'Black Swan Green' is Mitchell's "fourth novel as first novel." Having exorcised the epic with his first three books, he's calmed down and simplified his work, offering readers a glimpse of his life instead of a glimpse of eternity.

There's a certain amount of truth to that presumption, but don’t believe that 'Black Swan Green' is anything less than Mitchell's other novels. Mitchell is in this for the long run. If 'Black Swan Green' is more limited in scope and length than Mitchell's other novels, it's certainly just as ambitious and just as enjoyably readable. It's also just as complex, even if it's much more down-to-earth. Mitchell has honed and distilled his craft, offering readers all the richness of his epic works and much of the epic content without the epic feel. To best comprehend 'Black Swan Green', one should think not of Mitchell's other works, but rather of James Joyce's 'Ullysses'. But while Mitchell encapsulates cycles of mythology and the mysteries of life in a glimpse at an ordinary kid growing up in the 1980's, he does so with an accessibility and ease-of-reading that one is not likely to find in Joyce. 'Black Swan Green' works on a number of levels, but first and foremost, it's a very funny tale of a kid growing up in small town.

Jason Taylor lives in Worcestershire in 1982. It's muddy, bloody cold, and hell -- he's a thirteen year-old boy. That's never easy for anyone, and it's not easy for Jason, who battles the usual foes of the pre-adolescent male; other males, family problems, inimical teachers, and weird times brought on by the unpleasant policies of the Thatcher regime. But Jason's got one more problem. He lives with The Hangman, a gatekeeper between Jason's brain and his mouth that ensures he'll stammer at just the wrong moment. He also lives with the Unborn Twin and the Maggot, voices within him that sound off as he tries to wend his way through the minefields of pre-puberty and eventually puberty. As the novel begins, he sneaks into his father's den to answer an endlessly ringing phone. There's no one on the other end, or rather, the person who makes the call says nothing before hanging up. It's a minor mystery to Jason, but a signal to the reader that Mitchell is up to a lot more than we see on the surface of this engaging story.

Prepare to live A Year In The Life as you immerse yourself in this novel. You'll feel the ice, the snow, the mud, the shame, the joy and pretty much laugh at everything. Mitchell's very funny sense of humor ensures that you'll enjoy every minute of Jason's life even if he doesn't. Though the novel has a limited scope, it has a large cast of characters. But you won’t need a scorecard because Mitchell is so skilled at getting you behind Jason's eyes that you'll know them as well as he does. By mining his own life for this work, he's able to achieve an easygoing veracity. Just as you implicitly understand what the kid down the street is talking about, even if you don’t know the particular players, so too, will you feel the reality behind Jason's friends, enemies and adults.

The novel unfolds in thirteen sequential, self-contained short stories. In this it is like his other, wider-ranging books. Moreover, though it is utterly grounded in the real, the "there-and-then," there is more than a veneer of the fantastic. There are ghosts and witches in the woods, there are voices in Jason's head, and there is the world itself around him, as mysterious and mythic to the reader as it is to the thirteen year-old boy. Within the short-story style structure, Mitchell offers some wonderfully ambitious set-pieces, particularly a journey down a bridle path that evokes Greek mythology as well as laughter. But the episodic aspect builds rather than fragments, and 'Black Swan Green' is very much a coherent whole.

One of the most entertaining aspects of Jason's point-of-view is the result of Mitchell's skill with dramatic irony. There are numberless scenes where the reader will twig to the meaning of details that Jason reports but does not comprehend. Avoiding all clichés, Mitchell does not write a coming-of-age story. This is rather a pre-coming-age-story, and the psychological observations alone are as strikingly intelligent and original as they are entertaining. Mitchell does no less than carefully and discretely document the journey from pre-sexual, pre-adolescent childhood to the onset, but not necessarily the actual arrival of puberty. His subtle observations are remarkably enjoyable -- almost as much as the humor, which is frequent and truly funny.

'Black Swan Green' is swimming with the accidental poetry of the child, the teenager, of life itself. It’s a joy to read and a life to live in full, one hundred percent here-and-now. The politics are remarkably familiar. Mitchell's vision of the Falklands War will have readers reflecting on whatever war might be either in progress or on the horizon when they read the novel. It was just a simple, stupid war, but mind you, wars tend to be pretty hard on young men. Gripping, funny, epic, and approachable, 'Black Swan Green' is one small step for a young man, and a vivid demonstration that it is also a small step from eternity to a grain of sand.

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