It’s possible Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is my favorite book of all time. I’ve been meaning to read something else by him ever since I finished Cloud Atlas, which is how Black Swan Green ended up on my TBR Pile Challenge list. It’s the first book I’ve read for the challenge.
About the Book:
Black Swan Green is the story of Jason Taylor, a boy on the brink of adolescence living in a small English town in 1982. He has an older sister, a few friends, and a stammer that drives him crazy (and makes him an easy target for the meaner kids at school). The novel spans a year in which Jason will face challenges, have adventures, learn lessons, and make progress that will surprise even himself.
That might sound ho-hum, but no description I’ve found does the book justice. Black Swan Green is so much more than another typical coming-of-age novel.
Oh man. How can I even begin to describe how much I loved this book? Let’s see.
First, there is Mitchell’s ability to create amazing character voices, unique and fantastically three-dimensional and almost unbelievably believable. He managed this feat beautifully in Cloud Atlas, even though he jumped from character to character, never getting to spend too long with any one person. In Black Swan Green, Mitchell gets the chance to really settle into his character. Jason is such a vivid, real human being that I can imagine running into him someday out in the world. His word choice, diction, reactions, the way in which he tells the story, his relationships with family and friends, the details he observes and shares, his little confusions and discoveries…reading his retelling felt like reliving adolescence. Jason is someone you can really get behind and root for. You’re pulling for him the whole way, even as you’re going through everything with him. And every once in awhile, he’ll drop these amazing little bits of descriptive metaphor or nuggets of unexpected wisdom into his narration.
It isn’t just Jason who jumps off the page, though. We do get much more of his perspective, of course, since he’s our narrator. But the other characters (and there are a lot of them) come alive through his eyes. Hardly anyone who wanders across the page comes across as flat, even if the part he or she plays is brief. I can recall a plethora of individual characters. Even if I can’t remember their names, I can describe some trait or quirk or event related to them. It makes Jason’s world feel large — as I imagine it feels to Jason — even though in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t.
Zoom out one level to the narrative structure, and you find another spot where Mitchell shines. Every one of Cloud Atlas‘s six sections felt completely different, like its story had crawled into the skin of its own specific genre. Black Swan Green, in contrast, has a typical novel structure, yet it still feels like Mitchell has found yet another story style to inhabit. Like a hermit crab switching shells, or something. Here it’s a story as told by an adolescent boy. What I’m referring to is deeper than Jason’s voice, which I’ve already gushed about. There’s something about the way in which Mitchell put the book together that feels…right. Each chapter is something of a mini-epic in and of itself. But they’re not crafted to read like isolated, short-story incidents the way an adult might tell them. Instead, most of the chapters just sort of stop at odd points — seemingly wherever Jason feels he’s done relating the important bits — and you have to wait until later in the story to pick up hints about what actually happened. He zooms way into the details of a particular stretch of time, wanders off on a few tangents, then jumps to a later point. You always end up getting the information you need to make a complete story, but the skips somehow fit Jason’s character.
The story itself wasn’t particularly special, which is as it should’ve been. Jason turns relatively ordinary occurrences into adventures for himself, and the way in which he relates them makes them feel like adventures to us. It’s because we’re viewing the story through Jason’s eyes that it becomes interesting and meaningful. It’s through these ordinary events that we watch him grow, change, begin to understand. It never feels preconceived, like Mitchell is going, “Ok, now Jason will go through some event that will make him evolve as a person. Ready? Go.” Rather, it’s like Jason is unfolding as a result of his experiences, working his way through his problems as best he knows how, with no author behind the scenes pulling strings. The result is that the slightly more hopeful or emotional bits don’t feel cheesy or planned or unreal. They feel earned.
And then! Halfway through the book, I had the most delightful surprise. Mitchell drops in a Cloud Atlas reference. I won’t say more, and there’s absolutely no reason you need to have read Cloud Atlas to follow Black Swan Green, by any means. But oh my goodness, was I completely tickled when I realized what was going on. I’m still grinning, dork that I am.
Perhaps I’m making little to no sense. I’ll put it plainly: I adored this book. It’s fantastic. It took me forever to read, in fact, because I didn’t want to rush through and not savor the pages as they turned. And I’m thrilled to discover Cloud Atlas wasn’t a fluke, that at least one of Mitchell’s other books is fantastic, too! (Now I want to read them all…)
The Verdict: Amazing
As a story, Black Swan Green has a very different vibe from Cloud Atlas. Where the latter was almost literary pyrotechnics, the former is a much simpler and more straightforward story. But if you love David Mitchell’s writing style and particular flavor of talent, then go get yourself a copy of Black Swan Green. Then stop by and tell me how you liked it!
What authors have you read who consistently do not disappoint?