Monday, March 21, 2011

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

When I picked up David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green" I had no idea what to expect. Discerning readers raved about this author, but I hadn't read Mitchell's previous buzz-worthy offering, "Cloud Atlas," or anything else he'd written.

"Black Swan Green" is the story of Jason Taylor, a 13-year-old boy in a small village in England who navigates his adolescence while dealing with the burdens of a stammer and warring parents. I liked Jason. The problem I had with him is that most adults I know aren't able to articulate their feelings nearly as well as Mitchell's character. Although I believed a character like Jason would have felt the emotions Mitchell describes, I didn't believe for a minute he would be able to articulate those feelings. Because Jason tells his story with such an uncanny, supernatural level of self-knowledge the book lost its ability to completely engage me. I couldn't fully suspend disbelief. Ironically, Jason's unself-conscious, casual narration, full of 13-year-old boy colloquialisms, came off sounding self-conscious. I enjoyed Jason's story, and the lyrical voice he employed in telling it, but, in the end, did I buy it? No.

The other aspect of "Black Swan Green" that threw me had to do with structure. Perhaps if I was more of a short story fan and less of a novel or memoir fan, Mitchell's compilation of 13 separate, yet linked, stories would have satisfied, But I'm not. I know this about my "reading self" -- I need the author to hold my hand, to guide me through the narrative. The threads of the previous stories need to shine through the fabric of all that follows. If a story is presented as chopped up pieces of a whole I inevitably feel a disconnect, like I've been pushed to the periphery.

Novels are such multi-layered works of art. Despite the ways "Black Swan Green" didn't satisfy, there were components of the story that stayed with me. Like Emma Donoghue's "Room," in "Black Swan Green" Mitchell captures an engaging, compelling (if not fully authentic) young voice. I particularly enjoyed how Jason labeled the shadowy, negative speaking parts of his own personality "Unborn Twin," and "Hangman."

Books are way too complicated for a thumbs up, thumbs down rating system, don't you think?

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