Friday, November 28, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Black Swan Green


I read one great book this month so far. I've also struggled with a few problematic books, which I will discuss after my thumbs-up review. Possibly the lesson I'm learning here is "only read David Mitchell novels," as I just love his stuff and nothing else lately seems to be measuring up.

My latest Mitchell is Black Swan Green. Readers who are only familiar with Mitchell through his breakout novel Cloud Atlas may be surprised by this intimate, straightforward little novel. Where Cloud Atlas (and the subsequent The Bone Clocks) is an ambitious, sprawling book with loads of different themes, voices, and plot lines, Black Swan Green is tightly contained and almost parochial. It reminded me of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine and Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, both of which are also heavily autobiographical coming-of-age novels with layers of magic and mystery added. Mitchell freely employs and enjoys the supernatural in his most recent novels, but here we only have hints of it ... strange and spooky things seem to happen, but we stay grounded in reality.

Black Swan Green's structure is simple: it's a year in the life of a fairly ordinary 13-year-old English boy. But incidental things made it more interesting to me: I have a son the same age as Jason Taylor, and I felt like Mitchell captured the spirit of that age. Also, Jason Taylor would have been born roughly when I was (early 1970s), so the pop-culture references are all from my adolescence. And there are so many! I grew up in the US, not England, but 80s pop culture was similar all over the English-speaking world. If you were around in the 80s, you will probably enjoy the frequent and occasionally obscure references, too. (Anyone else remember Jean Michel Jarré?)


Other elements of the story seemed more rote to me, but might have broader appeal: Taylor has a severe speech impediment that leads to his being bullied. He's also got parents whose marriage is failing spectacularly. His sister, who initially seems like a bit of a bully herself, is soon shown to be keenly perceptive and a potential ally ... but she's going off to college, leaving him more isolated than ever. Those little domestic dramas, of course, feel absolutely huge when you're 13 and in the middle of them, and Mitchell develops these painful experiences brilliantly.

As with all coming-of-age novels, BSG is mostly about the moral development of an adolescent. In this case, "moral development" is the heart of the story, not incidental to it. Taylor has lots of chances to end up like his pathetic father, but he is forged by events into a true man. By the end, he is only a year older than when we started, but he's a mensch. That is exactly how you want these stories to end. Very satisfying read.

I tried to read, but eventually abandoned, the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. I kept hearing Aubyn lionized by virtually every literary reviewer I came across—no matter what book they were actually reviewing, they found a way to drop St. Aubyn's name into the review, and it was always attached to gushing praise. St. Aubyn's main claim-to-fame is his collection of novellas (forming one big novel, usually sold as a unit) that follow a character named Patrick Melrose. As with Mitchell's protagonist Jason Taylor, Patrick Melrose is a stand-in for the author himself. Edward St. Aubyn grew up in an aristocratic, highly-dysfunctional English household in the 60s and 70s, and this collection tells you all about the misery that was his youth and early life. However, I could only finish the first novella, somewhat appropriately titled "Never Mind." Unlike Mitchell, St. Aubyn seems to have no compassion for his young doppelganger. He describes Melrose's early childhood, which is truly horrific, as if he doesn't really care about it. As if it's perhaps even slightly amusing. I get the whole "stiff upper lip" thing but I don't want to spend time with it. I'm also flummoxed by the crazed praise for St. Aubyn's prose: I couldn't see anything special about it. It's not bad, but it's also not remarkable.

Currently I'm in the middle of two novels, which I expect I will finish in the next few days. (But not in time for this review.) One is The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, which follows the life of an Australian POW who was in a Japanese labor camp in World War II. It is an absolutely brutal read, but I can also understand why it won the Man Booker prize for 2014. I imagine dudes, especially those who primarily read military history—and that is my husband, dad, brother, and virtually every other dude I know—would like this novel, even if they don't normally read fiction. I think it does well in exploring the causes and costs of war. It's also a very masculine novel: Flanagan seems interested in what it means to be a man, to be brothers-in-arms, to be a (male) leader, to be a (male) prisoner degraded by other men; and conversely, what it is to be free again. How do you return to manhood after that? Women may not be so enthralled: I particularly find myself struggling with Flanagan's portrayal of women. So far, they are either absent or serving as plot furniture. The other book I'm reading is The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, described aptly as "Harry Potter set in a college in Brooklyn." It's definitely not for the little kids, though older teens would enjoy it. I'm more than halfway through and there really isn't a plot yet, which has me a bit worried, but I'm interested enough to keep pushing through.

And that's been my November reading thus far. I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving, and I'm looking forward to our December reviews!

11 comments:

  1. Hey, that's my era, too! (Big surprise...)

    Quite a lot of heavy reads for you this month, Stephanie.

    Black Swan Green sounds interesting - great title. A lot of Bradbury references at the Coffeehouse this month...

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    1. Hmm, interesting! I was pretty wrapped up in turkey day, but must now toddle off to read the other reviews and see what other Bradbury references there are.

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    2. Well, okay, just one other one. But that's two more than we usually get!

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  2. Black Swan Green and your review of it sounds as though it could be an interesting book to read.

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  3. I think I'll have to add Mitchell to my list of authors to read. I read The Magicians and its sequel and enjoyed both quite a bit, tho perhaps the first more than the second. But neither holds a candle to HP.

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    1. Yeah, I just don't feel like Grossman loves his world with the same passion Rowling loved hers.

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  4. Black Swan Green sounds good. I will probably enjoy The Narrow Road To The Deep North. I like books that have to do with WWII, but I'm concerned it's misogynistic.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. It's not actively misogynistic, but you get the feeling Flanagan forgets women are people. He doesn't hate them, they just aren't very interesting. Men, on the other hand, have rich interior lives he finds fascinating.

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  5. When I get around to Mitchell, it sounds like I should start with Black Swan Green.

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    1. So far, it's the most straightforward of his books. If you like speculative fiction at all, though, The Bone Clocks was pretty fantastic as well. I liked Cloud Atlas but I had to really concentrate to figure out what was happening.

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