It’s a little early to be thinking about books of the year, but I have a very strong suspicion that Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre, 2006) is going to feature on my list. In his previous novels he has proved to be a master of pyrotechnics, but this new book demonstrates that he can also do the sustained narrative voice and the small scale. In other words, he has added more weapons to his arsenal as a novelist without losing those instinctive storytelling skills which keep you moving through his books at a headlong pace.
Black Swan Green tells the story of 13 months in the life of 13-year-old Jason, from January 1982 to January 1983. Without being specific, each chapter concerns a different month, but more significantly Jason is a secret poet, and the incident central to each chapter provides (we learn by implication) the inspiration for another poem. Though towards the end there is an even more significant though similarly understated shift from poetry to prose.
All of this plays out in a small rural village in the shadow of the Mendips, the Black Swan Green of the title, and at one point we discover that most of the action in the novel takes place in an area no bigger than two or three football pitches. This change in scale from earlier works, I’m sure, is a conscious move on Mitchell’s part, but the episodic structure and the broad range of interests is no different. Jason and his family are incomers to the village, and as a 13-year-old boy he goes through the usual teenage issues of bullying, the desire to be part of the group (while hiding his poetry and, less successfully, his stammering), the mystery of girls, all told in an eager, attractive 13-year-old’s voice that feels real. But alongside these there are other issues: the Falklands War erupts and claims the life of the brother of one of his schoolmates, a family of gypsies arrives in the neighbourhood and arouses the antagonism of the villagers, a mysterious old foreign woman (who turns out to belong in the second part of Cloud Atlas) takes an interest in his poetry, and his parents’ marriage is becoming increasingly shaky.
Some of these are at the front of one intense episode, others run across from one episode to another, but all have consequences that find their echo later in the book. It feels, therefore, much like most of us remember our childhoods, as a sequence of vivid moments rather than as a coherent narrative. But it works as a carefully structured narrative, linking to and reflecting upon distinct episodes in a way that can have significant and sometimes startling consequences later on. This, of course, is a variation on the structural games that Mitchell has played in earlier novels, particularly Ghostwritten. Indeed the very first chapter ends in a cliffhanger that remains unresolved until the last pages of the last chapter.
It’s tempting to see this as autobiographical (the age, the location, the speech impediment, the writing all fit), but that’s a dangerous interpretation to put on it. This is too controlled, too structured a work to fully fit with such a take (as if the irruption from Cloud Atlas was not itself a warning to avoid taking this too much at face value).
But this I will say, this is the most controlled piece of writing we have so far had from David Mitchell, and demonstrates that the earlier novels were not some pyrotechnic flash in the pan, there is real novelistic substance here. Wherever future novels take him, it’s going to be an interesting journey.
First published at Livejournal, 6 February 2006.