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Arts and Entertainment

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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The LA Times has nominated five books in each of nine different categories for the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. In the weeks leading up to the Festival of Books where the winners will be announced, LAist will take a quick look at each category and will wax poetic on a few favorites (or least favorites) along the way. Black Swan Green is a Fiction nominee.

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David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green is a departure for Mitchell – quiet and controlled while examining a year in the life of a 13-year-old-boy, instead of the bold, complicated, wildly imagined colliding worlds of his previous books. While many have argued that BSG is too quiet, too controlled, we found it to be a refreshing change, an indication of true versatility: just when you begin to expect a certain type of work from Mitchell, he delivers something else entirely.

So what does he deliver exactly? A touching tale about 13-year old Jason Taylor living in the small English village of Black Swan Green, that shines a brilliant (if painful) light on the many awkward moments that fill adolescence. Jason’s journey is full of bullies who beat him up, friends who abandon him, ghosts who haunt him, parents on the brink of divorce, and a few odd characters that threaten to topple his precarious “ranking” in the popularity contest that is teenagedom in 1982 England.

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As if all this weren’t enough, Jason has a stammer that he calls Hangman, because it’s always hanging him up when he wants to say something. Words that begin with N & S are particularly challenging and he’s constantly trying to call up and emit a different, yet equal, word that doesn’t present quite as much of a challenge.

"The only way to outfox Hangman is to think one sentence ahead, and if you see a stammer-word coming up, alter your sentence so you won't need to use it. Of course, you have to do this without the person you're talking to catching on. 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 world '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.' Not at Upton-on-Severn Comprehensive, anyway.) Another strategy is to buy time by saying 'er...' in the hope that Hangman's concentration'll lapse and you can sneak the work out. But if you say 'er...' too much you come across as a right dimmer."

To top it all off, Jason harbors a secret desire to write poetry - not something he's eager to share with the school bullies. It is in these moments of "what if they find out about me" fear that we begin to root, wholeheartedly, for Jason. Who hasn't had these same worries, these same fears, at some point in our messy lives? His busy banter and his musings on his teenage life are both immature (to be expected from a young man coming in to his own) and eerily spot-on at the same time, providing a lovely glimpse into the child-becoming-adult-world that Mitchell has created.

"Secrets affect you more than you'd think. You like to keep them hidden. You steer talk away from them. You worry someone'll discover yours and tell the world. You think you are in charge of the secret, but isn't it the secret that's using you?"

While Mitchell places Jason in many common -- almost cliché -- adolescent situations (the bully wants to fight him, he experiences his first kiss & his first cigarette, his parents are fighting and don't understand him), it is the thoughtful way he does so that makes Jason's tale engaging. Add in Mitchell's own real-life trouble with stammering as a child and you begin to wonder if we aren't seeing a glimpse of Mitchell in Jason's struggles. What is most compelling about this quiet tale is Jason's desire to escape to another place, to get out of the small-minded, claustrophobic world of bullies and parents who won't let him be who he wants to become. We wonder if this echoes Mitchell's own desires to escape his early circumstances.

Fans of Mitchell may read a few chapters before they fully embrace this decidedly different Mitchell tale, but we think readers of all stripes will be rewarded for their efforts. But that's just us. Time will tell if this is truly a one-off change-up for Mitchell or if he'll soon be back to the multi-voiced, multi-layered, overlapping worlds that have become his trademark.

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David Mitchell's other novels include: Ghostwritten, number9dream and Cloud Atlas.