I’m not going to write about the really, really annoying books I’ve just read (even though I have many thoughts about them) because those authors don’t deserve any more publicity. However, I did enjoy Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. This novel, apparently semi-autobiographical, describes a year in the life of thirteen-year-old Jason, who lives in a small village in Worcestershire, England in 1982. As Margaret Thatcher revels in the carnage of the Falklands War, Jason concentrates on his own struggle for survival. At home, his father is angry and often absent, his mother is lonely and frustrated, and his sister Julia, an inconstant ally, is about to leave for university. At school, Jason is bullied for being clever, sensitive and worst of all, a stammerer. He spends a great deal of time and energy hiding his true self, engaging in stupid and self-destructive stunts in (mostly futile) attempts to show how “hard” he is. There are innumerable ridiculous rules about how boys in his community need to behave in order to avoid that dreaded label, “gay”. Pretty much anything Jason enjoys in life, including being friends with girls, is “gay” and is punished with social exclusion and outright violence. Even some of his teachers join in with the harassment. Fortunately, Jason is resourceful, gathers up some courage and a few supporters, and manages to engineer some sort of victory by the end.
The novel is supposedly written by clueless thirteen-year-old Jason, although the insights revealed often sound more like an adult narrator looking back on his childhood. At times, I was also irritated by the author’s decision to use a combination of teenage-speak and a very obtrusive form of contractions:
“School corridors’re sort of sinister during classtime. The noisiest spaces’re now the silentest.”
Even worse was when Jason lapsed into poetry:
“Autumn’s fungussy, berries’re manky, leaves’re rusting, V’s of long-distance birds’re crossing the sky, evenings’re smoky, nights’re cold, autumn’s nearly dead.”
But I enjoyed Jason’s thoughts about his development as a writer (“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say ‘When you’re ready.’”). And readers who can remember the 1980s will enjoy all the pop culture references and the jokes (for instance, listening to “that ace song, ‘Olive’s Salami’ by Elvis Costello” and getting a Betamax video recorder because “VHS’s going extinct”). While the plot’s predictable for anyone who’s ever read any Young Adult fiction, Black Swan Green is an entertaining and often moving story – Adrian Mole rewritten as Serious Literature.