Sebastian Smee

Missing the middle path

Missing the middle path
Text settings

Black Swan Green

David Mitchell

Sceptre, pp. 371, £

Listing page content here

Reading David Mitchell’s fourth novel, which is told through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy, reminded me why girls have little or no interest in the contents of boys’ heads until they are well out of their teens. It’s horrible in there. Thirteen-year-old boys, in particular, are revolting concoctions of fear and loathing, of hormones and confusion and clumsy self-assertion.

This presents Mitchell, a writer of enormous talent but uncertain depth, with a problem. The truer and more lifelike he makes his narrator’s voice, the more he risks boring us silly with early teen preoccupations. But the more he uses art (in the form of stylish writing, good plotting, poetic feeling) to overcome this danger, the more he risks hitting false notes and puncturing the story’s painstakingly constructed reality.

Unfortunately, Mitchell doesn’t quite manage to steer the necessary middle path between these twin hazards, and instead careers rather wildly from side to side. Reading Black Swan Green, I was bored, on the one hand, to be spending so much time (credibly) inside its narrator’s head and irritated, on the other, by episodes of such embarrassing artifice that I found myself skimming ahead in search of the words, ‘He woke with a start.’

Jason Taylor is a fairly ordinary 13-year-old growing up in the early 1980s. He is preoccupied with peer group dynamics, gets excited by war (the Falklands conflict breaks out midway through the novel), and is experiencing his first flutters of interest in sex. But he also has a sensitive nature, a gift for language and observation, and a stutter. (People have been calling this book Mitchell’s belated attempt at a ‘first novel’, in the sense that he draws strongly on personal history as first-time novelists tend to do; his earlier novels, by contrast, have been dazzling feats of multi-vocal, time-hopping ventriloquism.)

There is so much to admire about Mitchell’s writing: his gift for mimicry, his ear for dialogue, the liberties he takes with storytelling conventions, and his ability to get inside the head of his characters, especially Jason Taylor. But after his great successes with Ghostwritten, number9dream and Cloud Atlas, he looks like an author who is too self-conscious about his gifts, unsure of how best to deploy them.

For much of Black Swan Green, which unfolds like a personal diary, Mitchell’s focus feels too close-in. As a result, the emotions he conjures are fleeting; they have no real sweep or traction. Worse, the book is groaning with redundant period detail. Including so many showily specific references to 1980s’ fads and songs and so forth tends to draw attention to the author rather than build a convincingly real atmosphere.

The writing can be extremely sensitive. I was especially taken by the way Jason’s voice veers between the boyishly gauche and the genuinely inspired. It felt true to adolescence. When he writes ‘a cow of an awkward pause mooed’, it strikes a twanging note. But then he will write (bringing to mind the sensitivity and imagination of a writer like John Banville): ‘Rooks craw … craw … crawed, like old people who’ve forgotten why they’ve come upstairs.’ Or ‘Dewy cobwebs snapt- wanged across my face.’ Or ‘Sunlight on waves is drowsy tinsel.’

The adults in this story, especially Jason’s parents, are caricatured, perhaps in an effort to make Jason stand out as all the more complex and vivid. But the upshot is that there is no real apprehension of the congested unknowns and strange forebodings that define the gap between teenagers and adults in real life. Mitchell is fond of sarcastic, wised-up characters, and gets a lot of comic mileage from Jason’s reports of their dialogue. But when everything said by not only Jason’s parents but by teachers, older boys and even his sister is so clever and cynical, it strains credibility.

There is a certain point in the narrative where you realise that this is not, in fact, a novel for grown-ups. It is, instead, a brilliantly handled novel for young adults. It is edifying, in a heartening but rather conventional way: Jason learns to confront bullies and stand up for himself. He gains respect, he grows closer to his sister (she who had previously called him ‘Thing’ and been labelled by him an ‘abortion’), he reconciles himself to his parents’ failings, and he gets the girl.

The world Mitchell conjures is vivid and brilliantly re-imagined (one often nods in painful recognition). But in the end sentimentality snuffs out any sense of a deeper, artistic reality, one that would truly justify so much effort.