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Black Swan Green: A Novelby David Mitchell
A single year in the life of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor is the focus of David Mitchell's incandescent new novel. The pedestrian village of Black Swan Green appears terribly ordinary for Jason, but the striking cast of characters he lives amongst, as well as the internal musings of his mind, take the reader to the emotional tumult of a young boy coming of age in Cold War England.
"[A] funny, poignant story...simply a pleasure....[Mitchell] follows Pound's exhortation to 'make it new': You've read it before, and then again, you haven't read it quite like this. Jason Taylor is a classic, stammer and all." Claire Messud, LA Weekly (read the entire LA Weekly review)
"Mitchell has written another complex novel, in which multiple themes run like streams of extra data beneath every incident, and understanding comes by the process of reading into a satisfying tangle of metaphor and reference. It is the best kind of contemporary fiction." M. John Harrison, The Times Literary Supplement (read the entire TLS review)
"Of all the books that I have read as an adult, the novels of David Mitchell have come closest to resurrecting my own childhood reading utopia....Black Swan Green is Mitchell's most adventuresome work yet. The difference is that while language previously played a supporting role to his formal experimentation, here he performs his experiments within the medium of language itself, and with brilliant results." Ruth Franklin, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
From award-winning writer David Mitchell comes a sinewy, meditative novel of boyhood on the cusp of adulthood and the old on the cusp of the new.
Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an exquisitely observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys' games on a frozen lake; of "nightcreeping" through the summer backyards of strangers; of the tabloid-fueled thrills of the Falklands War and its human toll; of the cruel, luscious Dawn Madden and her power-hungry boyfriend, Ross Wilcox; of a certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an elderly bohemian emigré who is both more and less than she appears; of Jason's search to replace his dead grandfather's irreplaceable smashed watch before the crime is discovered; of first cigarettes, first kisses, first Duran Duran Lps, and first deaths; of Margaret Thatcher's recession; of Gypsies camping in the woods and the hysteria they inspire; and, even closer to home, of a slow-motion divorce in four seasons.
Pointed, funny, profound, left-field, elegiac, and painted with the stuff of life, Black Swan Green is David Mitchell's subtlest and most effective achievement to date.
"For his fourth novel, two-time Booker Prize finalist Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, etc.) turns to material most writers plumb in their first: the semiautobiographical, first-person coming-of-age story. And after three books with notably complex narrative structure, far-flung settings, and multiple viewpoints, he has chosen one narrator, 13-year-old Jason Taylor, to tell the story of one year (1982) in one town, Worcestershire's Black Swan Green. Jason starts with the January day he accidentally smashes his late grandfather's irreplaceable Omega Seamaster DeVille watch and ends with Christmas, which, because of intervening events, becomes the last he spends in this sleepy Midlands hamlet. The gorgeously revealed cast includes Jason's brilliant older sister, sarcastic mother, blustering dad and a spectrum of bullies and mates. Jason's nemesis is an intermittent, fluctuating stammer: some days he must avoid words beginning with N; other days, S. Once he is exposed, the bullies taunt him mercilessly; there is no respite for the weak or disabled in Black Swan Green nor, as the realities of Thatcher's grim reign begin to take their toll, in England writ large. How Jason and his family navigate this year of change is the emotional core of this rich novel, but the virtuoso chapter is 'The Bridle Path,' wherein Jason, alone for one delicious day, searches for a tunnel fabled to have been dug by the Romans in order to rout the Vikings. What he finds along the way captures the sheer pleasure of being a boy and brings to mind adventures shared by Huck and Tom." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"After the sprawling scope and pyrotechnic style of his Booker Prize-nominated 'Cloud Atlas,' David Mitchell could have delivered nothing more surprising than this charming, quiet novel about a 13-year-old boy. In 13 connected stories that take place in 1982, young Jason Taylor describes his perilous trek through schoolyard trials, his budding interest in girls and the simmering tension between his... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) parents. Straddling the wonders of childhood and the anxieties of adulthood, he speaks to us in a voice that mingles insight and naivete — not too cute, not too slick. The result is a novel that's alternately nostalgic, funny and heartbreaking. 'It's all ranks, being a boy,' Jason reminds us, 'like the army.' He lives cautiously, always attentive to shifting, unwritten rules about what to wear, how to greet friends, where to sit on the bus, what songs to like. For the young men of this little village in Worcestershire, England, life is governed largely by the dread of being thought gay. 'Mind you,' Jason tells us, '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.' Being a sensitive boy with an interest in literature is fraught with risk ('Books're gay'), but Jason can't help studying everything around him, spinning his own Walter Mitty fantasies of adventure. Although we see only a few lines of his poetry — nothing especially noteworthy — his fresh insight into other people and his raw enthusiasm for the world endow this winding commentary with the joy of little revelations: 'The lake in the woods was epic. Tiny bubbles were trapped in the ice like in Fox's Glacier Mints.' Mitchell's previous work has shown how much language matters to him, and now he's created a character who lives and dies on the battlefield of words. Jason speaks with a heavy stammer — the kind of disability, he realizes, that people still feel comfortable mocking, long after they've given up making fun of 'cripples' and 'spastics.' ('It's easier to change your eyeballs than to change your nickname,' he notes.) Every utterance offers the fresh danger of humiliation among a group of boys on the lookout for any sign of weakness or difference: 'My billion problems kept bobbing up like corpses in a flooded city.' Speaking is always an elaborate contest with the 'hangman' in his mind, the demon who colonizes the alphabet, grabbing the letter 's' and then 'n.' Jason races ahead of each sentence, scanning for forbidden words and making quick substitutions before he gets snared in a contorted pause. 'Reading dictionaries like I do helps you do these ducks and dives, but you have to remember who you're talking to. (If I was speaking to another thirteen-year-old and said the word melancholy to avoid stammering on sad, for example, I'd be a laughingstock 'cause kids aren't s'posed to use adult words like melancholy.') As you can see here, there's nothing pathetic or pitiable about Jason, nothing alien or exotic about his own curious incidents of the dog in the nighttime. Through an extraordinary exercise of will and intelligence, he manages to keep his disability largely hidden, but avoiding ridicule is exhausting work, as anybody who's been 13 will remember: 'Trees're always a relief, after people,' he says. Still, it's people who interest him most: the witch in the woods who helps him when he hurts his ankle; his slick cousin Hugo, who teaches him how to smoke and shoplift; Dawn Madden, 'who's a boy gone wrong in some experiment'; the handsome young man whose death ruins the Falklands War; the gypsies who raise the town's ire; even his parents, whose marriage frays over the course of the novel. In one of the most remarkable chapters, 'Bridle Path,' young Jason just wanders through the village, searching for a secret tunnel. Along the way he picks up the sounds and sights, the alliances and conflicts all around him. It's an apparently aimless riff that gradually overwhelms you with its reverence for the ordinary. Mitchell makes all this look easy, but from the pen of anyone less gifted, these stories would turn precious, maudlin or dull. He has a perfect ear for that most calamitous year, the first of the teens, when we come face to face with the volatile nature of life. There's plenty of sadness in that discovery, of course, but humor, too, and he spins them together subtly in this touching novel. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Great Britain's Catcher in the Rye — and another triumph for one of the present age's most interesting and accomplished novelists." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] beautiful, stripped-down coming-of-age story....[Mitchell] reproduces Jason's inner life with such astonishing verisimilitude that readers will find themselves haunted by him long after turning the last page." Booklist (Starred Review)
"This book is so entertainingly strange, so packed with activity, adventures, and diverting banter, that you only realize as the extraordinary novel concludes that the timid boy has grown before your eyes into a capable young man. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly
"Here the virtuoso ventriloquism of multiple voices and settings focuses only on Jason and his surroundings but to heightened comic and dramatic effect. Recommended." Library Journal
"[B]rilliant....In Jason, Mitchell creates an evocative yet authentically adolescent voice, an achievement even more impressive than the ventriloquism of his earlier books." Nell Freudenberger, The New York Times Book Review
"There's so much to recommend this book....
"[A] genuinely pristine and personal work. Comparisons could be made to Roddy Doyle or Mark Haddon....But Mitchell has very much a voice of his own, and the child's poetry he brings to this novel is a pleasure to behold." San Francisco Chronicle
"[Mitchell] has a perfect ear for that most calamitous year, the first of the teens, when we come face-to-face with the volatile nature of life. There's plenty of sadness in that discovery, of course, but humor, too, and he spins them together subtly in this touching novel." The Washington Post
"Mitchell — who for my gelt is the best pure storyteller writing in English today — not only makes [the coming-of-age story] fresh and astounding and new, he does it by going out of his way to touch all the familiar bases..." San Diego Union-Tribune
"A testament of [Mitchell's] seemingly bottomless talent....[Mitchell] succeeds in infusing a simple coming-of-age story with his own brand of creative flair, his trademark gorgeous language and his pitch-perfect dialogue....
About the Author
David Mitchell is the author of Ghostwritten, Number9Dream, and Cloud Atlas, the last two finalists for the Booker Prize. Granta magazine named him one of Britain's best young novelists in 2003. He lives in County Cork with his wife and daughter.
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