Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

Black Swan Green

David Mitchell

Sceptre 2006

Remember the savage social rituals of adolescence? The rigid hierarchy of high school? A caste system more entrenched than anything in India?

David Mitchell does. His narrator, Jason Taylor, is 13 and on the verge of puberty. As if hormones arent bad enough, Jason stammers and harbours secret desires to write poetry. Hes also canny enough to know how brutally his peers will respond to anything outside their limited norms. Using discretion and evasion, he tries to dodge the worst torments of the school yard and maintains his status as a middle-ranking kid, between the bullying Cock of the School and his toadies, and the lepers of the unredeemable lower echelons.

Black Swan Green follows a year in Jasons life, and sees him dealing with adolescent confusion, parental conflict and the wider malaise of life in Thatchers England. Its 1982 and Mitchells period details are comprehensive. Jason is mocked for stammering when he tries to say Simon Le Bon; its a pre-computer world of Chariots of Fire and Pacman and the Falklands war. People eat Toblerones and one day the sky is as turquoise as Head and Shoulders shampoo. His older sister reads The Face and listens to records by Neil Young, who sings like a barn collapsing, but his musics brill.

What makes this novel such a treat to read is Jasons unique voice, and his self-deprecating humour. I sucked Mint Imperials, just in case I met a suntanned girl whod take me upstairs to one of those saggy houses with seagulls screaming on the ridges, and draw her curtains and lie me on her bed and teach me how to kiss. The scene where he accidentally sees his father naked and responds in horror made me laugh out loud.

This is not as complex or dazzling as Mitchells earlier novels Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, but its certainly his most accessible The personal nature of the subject matter and the compassion he shows for his characters give it a wider appeal. Its a fascinating portrait of middle class life in a specific time and place, and of a thoughtful boy trying to find answers to difficult questions.

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