English author David Mitchell never writes the same book twice. After publishing three novels of varied and complicated structure, he returns to a simple linear storyline, producing what is usually a writer’s first novela semi-autobiographical account of a young person’s coming of age. With its precocious teenage narrator and a chronicle filled with British slang and actual events of 1982, Black Swan Green has been compared to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). The careful structure is still there: thirteen chapters set in consecutive months, the first and last bearing the same title, but done so subtly that a reader might miss it. In each chapter Jason Taylor, the youth in question, learns a new and uncomfortable truth, so that the book could well be subtitled Jason’s Progress.
Jason, the narrator of Black Swan Green, pretends to be more sophisticated than he really is but, in fact, is charmingly innocent. He does not know how to attract a girlfriend and fails to understand most off-color remarks, although he knows enough not to ask questions. Living in the Worcestershire village of Black Swan Green, whose one joke is that there are no swans, Jason is the very picture of a self-conscious, desperate-not-to-be-different adolescent. To his chagrin, his voice is still changing; occasionally he squeaks. Among his endearing qualities are his stammer, his lucky red underpants, and his fondness for his speech therapist’s Metro Gnomeso called, he believes, because it is so small.
Jason’s family has its own problems. Something is going on between his parents that he does not fully understand. Michael Taylor, his dogmatic and generally absent father, is the short-tempered mid-level executive of a supermarket chain. Jason’s mother, Helena, comes to life only after she is invited to manage a friend’s successful interior design gallery and shop, which she does very well. His older sister, Julia, refers to him as “Thing.” His current hero is his cousin Hugo Lamb, two years older and infinitely cool, who is also an accomplished shoplifter. In the course of a noisy family visit, Jason’s father and his Uncle Brian drink too much, argue about traffic routes, and boast about their offspring over a dinner that suggests the disastrous Christmas dinner in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).
One is aware of an uncomfortable distance between Jason and his father, resulting in an uneasy balancing act. At the same time, it is clear that father and son do love each other. Jason recalls a spoiled vacation (it rained constantly) as one of the best because he and Michael, trapped indoors, played games together every day. In August the two of them visit the coastal resort of Lyme Registhe father for a business conference, the son for a brief holiday. Their evening date for the film Chariots of Fire passes when Michael comes back to the hotel too late and then leaves again with his employer, returning quite drunk in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, in the morning they do fly a kite together on the beach, and in a moment of boyishness his father, who once loved geology, buys Jason a fossil. When by chance they encounter his boss again, Michael Taylor transforms immediately into a fawning subordinate, and the holiday is over. At her gallery, Jason’s mother gives him more spending money than his father did (a subtle competition) and takes him to see the movie.
Young Jason frequently holds a dialogue with his inner selves. Maggot is Jason’s cowardly self, ever ready to retreat or hide. Unborn Twin is a true alter ego, a critical inner voice that corrects, contradicts, and disapproves of him: “I should’ve been born . . . not you, you cow.” Hangman is his treacherous stammer, which he has personified and which always seems worse in winter. Stammering and stuttering are “as different as diarrhea and constipation,” and Jason is careful to distinguish between them. While a stutterer will repeat the initial sound, a stammerer cannot articulate the last part of the word: “When a stammerer stammers their eyeballs pop out, they go trembly-red . . . and their mouth guppergupperguppers like a fish in a net.” (Mitchell writes from childhood experience.) Jason tries to think ahead to a substitute word, preferably not one beginning with n, s, or g. Extremely sensitive, he dreads making errors in...
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