Just now, I am attending a professional conference. It takes place in eastern Kentucky, and right now, as I write, there’s a thunderstorm. This is the first thunderstorm I’ve experienced for four years; they happen, if they happen at all, with such scarcity in my part of the country (eastern Washington state) that I haven’t seen one yet. I grew up with them. I miss them. This is nice. Thanks, Kentucky.
Now, to the book. David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green is narrated by a thirteen-year-old boy, Jason, and each chapter is a month in his thirteenth year. Jason, like all thirteen-year-old kids, has his problems (is thirteen the worst possible age, or is three, or is twenty-three? Discuss.) He is a poet, at an age and gender when being a poet is totally unacceptable. He stammers, when the discovery of this will mean instantaneous social death. His parents freeze each other out. And the forest behind his house, though probably really only about an acre or so in size, seems to expand in mystery and danger every time he enters it.
I had issues with this book. I liked a lot of it. I liked Jason’s struggles with his stammer, which he calls Hangman, dodging and twisting it to escape his fate. I liked his friendship with Moran, and the way he felt helpless not to betray it at times, to save himself. The book was reasonably well-written, and Jason was a good character, interestingly tangled. But the episodic nature of the structure gave the book a bit of a feel of Afterschool Specials at times, neat and sentimental. Things wrap themselves up when they shouldn’t, or else they never get mentioned again.
The other trouble was that — forgive me — I’ve been thirteen, and I work with eighteen-year-olds, and Jason was no thirteen-year-old, or at least not all the time. Sometimes he seemed perfectly believable, and sometimes I had to stretch my credulity to the breaking point, and I never knew which it was going to be. Let me give you an example.
The best scene in the book comes early on. Jason, to cheer himself up, has put on his grandfather’s precious watch, an incredibly expensive Omega Seamaster. While he’s out, he sees a ghostly figure skating on the lake, a drowned boy, and in his fear he falls and hurts his ankle badly and gives himself a bump on the head.
I wondered what the time was and squinted at my grandad’s Omega but it was too dark in the tiny kitchen to see. Suppose it was late evening? I’d get back and my tea would be waiting under a Pyrex dish. Mum and Dad go ape if I’m not back in time for tea. Or s’pose it’d gone midnight? S’pose the police’d been alerted? Jesus…
No, worse than that. Back in the parlor I looked at my grandfather’s Omega and saw that there was no time. The glass face, the hour hand, and the minute hand’d gone and only a bent second hand was left. When I fell on the ice, it must’ve happened then. The casing was split and half its innards’d spilt out.
Here we have Jason, the thirteen-year-old, who knows — he knows — his world will come to an end because of what he’s done.
Compare that to this: Jason goes with his parents to a meeting about a new law providing a place for gypsies to encamp legally on village ground. Jason’s thoughts during the meeting:
I missed what he said next, thinking how the villagers wanted the Gypsies to be gross, so the grossness of what they’re not acts as a stencil for what they are… I thought how all leaders had the knack of turning what people’re afraid of into bows and arrows and muskets and grenades and nukes. That knack is power.
Sorry. My suspension of disbelief just snapped. And I didn’t even get into the charming-but-unrealistic chapter where an elderly German woman tutors Jason on modern poetry.
I suppose I’d expected something astonishing, because I’d heard a lot about Cloud Atlas. This is a nice, straightforward story about a thirteen-year-old, and sometimes it devolves into platitudes, and sometimes it’s quite good. You might enjoy it. I mostly did.
Note: I believe this novel got an award for YA fiction, but I would not characterize it as such. Just because the narrator is thirteen does not make this a young adult novel.