My heart was aflutter, my brain was on fire, and sometimes I found myself bumping into things and forgetting stuff. I was besotted. By a book.
How Did I Get Here?
For years I heard the name David Mitchell. Friends worshiped his books, his short stories appeared in many literary anthologies, and at one point I even bought a pretty-looking copy of Cloud Atlas...and it sat on my shelf untouched. David Mitchell was in my orbit but I just kept putting him off. Finally, last fall, I read “January Man,” the first chapter in Black Swan Green. I remember reading it while standing by the ocean waiting for the Muni. By the time the train was tunneling into downtown San Francisco I was on the second chapter, “Hangman,” and I knew that I had found something that would be dear to me forever.
What’s Real and Make Believe
On the surface, Black Swan Green chronicles a year in the life of a quiet boy and his dealings with his nuclear family and schoolmates in a small boring English town in 1982. What makes the book burn so bright is its narrator, Jason Taylor. In real life he tries so hard to be as bland and unnoticeable as possible--as long as he’s not picked on or put in the spotlight he feels all right. But he’s leading a double life here, because deep down he’s exquisitely sensitive to his environment and by this virtue, he’s one of the most alive and passionate people around. He just refuses to show it.
His one emotional outlet is his secret life as a poet with a pen name (Eliot Bolivar). His observations -- schoolyard fights and dares, the Falklands War, frozen lakes and lovely trees, his shame about his uncontrollable stammering, the tension between his unhappy parents, his crush on the girl with punk hair, the sharp and witty comebacks he never says aloud -- are captured in poems published in the town’s parish newsletter. As you read the book, you realize that each chapter is basically like a narrative poem, with as much swagger and momentum as the rich language of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (a novel that came out the year after Black Swan Green, and features another one of the best teen characters of contemporary lit).
Fool Your Soul
Over the course of the novel, Jason deeply contemplates his two lives, and slowly starts to uncover the fact that many of the people he knows--sometimes the people closest to him or those who seem most unhappy--are also hiding behind facades. One of my favorite stories in here, “Solarium,” presses this point: “If you are not truthful to the world about who and what you are, your art will stink of falseness.” Of course I wonder here about the connection between art and existence.
I Know It’s Right
It took me months to read this book. Not because it was something I wanted to put off. It took so long because I never wanted it to end. It was so sad at times that I’d cry and other times-- sometimes a sentence or two later--I laughed til my stomach ached. I was all aglow from taking in the beautiful descriptions that were so full of wonder and excitement about the world. I felt mad that he liked the punk girl who was mean to him. How could someone so great adore someone who didn’t value him? Ugh! I felt protective of this character. Maybe I saw a little of myself in him. It might not be the perfect book for everyone, but I know for certain that I have found a book that means everything to me.
Some More Swan!
Visit David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green website.
Karen Choy is the Youth Services Librarian in Half Moon Bay.