Sunday, September 1, 2013

Book Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell is a story about a young, stammer teenager in a sleepy village in England. The story recounts a year in his life (1982-1983). While bigger things are happening in the outside world (such as the Falkland War), the story is told from the point of view of the teenager and you can imagine how this colors it. He's more preoccupied with his friends, his school, and his cliques than with the bigger picture. That makes for an interesting read, as I describe below.



Overall Impression
The first impression of this book was very negative for me. I could barely understand what was being said. The author uses a lot of local slang and brand names in his work and for someone not of rural England it becomes impenetrable. Add to that the fact that the story meanders without coalescing on a well-defined plot and you have a very slow, dull opening. However, if you persevere past the first few chapters you start seeing what the story is all about. It's a tale of a year in a young teenager's life. There is no point to it, it's just life. A normal year like any other with ups and downs. The author does a good deal of bringing the characters to life, however, which makes the story in the end interesting in its simplicity. Furthermore, it's the type of story nearly everyone can relate to.

Plot
The plot meanders through chapters that feel more like short stories. In each, the main character, Jason Taylor, is doing or experiencing something, whether it is a particularly noteworthy day at school, or a vacation with his father, or a trip with his mother, or a visit by the Gypsies. Pretty ordinary events take place in each, but are perceived by an imaginative teenager.
Unfortunately, life is never easy. Some chapters are sad or depressing because you are looking for a ray of hope but don't see one. Other chapters, however, are far better as you see the character growing up, standing up to his challenges, and becoming wiser along the way. The story oscillates between these types of chapters, though many of the depressing ones come first. In my opinion, once you reach solarium, things start improving rapidly as you notice the main character is growing up.

Unfortunately, the story ends in a sad note. In hindsight, one can see it coming, but it completely sours the prior chapter, which had gone up to a very high note. Life is full of ups and downs, and this book reflects that in its plot. Yet unlike most other books it both starts and ends depressingly. I wish the author had ended on a high note, since I'm now writing this review with the sad ending fresh in my mind.

Characters
The story revolves around Jason Taylor, a young teenager with a stammer. He's a secret poet, in the sense that he has been sending his poems to be published under a pseudonym to avoid ridicule at school. He is unfortunately obsessed with what people think of him, deciding his actions on whether or not they will make him popular or whether or not people will think it's gay. However, he is not a popular kid. He considers himself among the middle ground and avoids the 'losers' to try (and fail) to hang out with the 'winners.' In the end: he's an ordinary teenager.

Several chapters are sad or depressing, since they have this normal kid being rejected as he tries to fit in or as the victim of some really horrible bullying. It doesn't matter what phase in your life you're in, we can all identify with Jason. Even well past being a teenager you can still suffer rejection as you're trying to make friends or join groups. Still, as one of his teachers discretely advises him:
Hankering for security or popularity makes you weak and vulnerable. [...] Respect earned by integrity cannot be lost without your consent.
These are life lessons that it helps to be reminded of. I doubt that any of us enjoy being rejected or made fun of, but it happens and it's best not to dwell on it and to move on and focus on what really maters in life. Jason is young, but you can tell that as the story progresses he understands more and more. Seeing how he grows in a single year is one of the pleasures of this book.

Setting / World Building
The story is set in Black Swan Green, a very small village in Worcestershire in the United Kingdom. I'm not entirely sure if the village actually exists, but there are references to real places like Cheltenham and Oxford. I've never lived in a small town, nor have I visited the UK. Hence, I felt very disconnected from the setting of the book. A similar experience happened to me while reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman. In that book, I felt more familiar with the various gods than with middle America. I, and I am sure many more people now a days, am a city person. I feel more at home with authors like China Mieville with their crazy cities than in a rural village.

One interesting aspect of the world, however, is the apparent connection between David Mitchell's other works. Now, I haven't read any thing else by him by I did watch Cloud Atlas. A character in the book, Madam Crommelynck, makes reference to her father Vyvyan Ayrs as she plays the sextet composed by Robert Frobisher. Both of these are important characters in Cloud Atlas, after all the sextet itself, if I remember correctly, is the Cloud Atlas Sextet. This is not important to the story in Black Swan Green, but is a little bonus for the attentive reader.

Final Thoughts
This book was a very interesting read. I have mixed feelings about it because the slang and language was initially difficult to understand and the plot didn't seem to be going anywhere (which is appropriate for the type of story). However, the author made me care for the main character, which I could relate to. Unfortunately, all the bad things that happen would bring my mood down whenever I read the book (of course, my mood improved when I read some of the better chapters). It is a testament to the Mitchell's skill that he can do this to a reader.
In the end, I have to say I did enjoy most of it and can certainly see why the author has been praised for it.

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