Black Swan Green
So, I picked up a copy of Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. I pulled it off the shelf because it’s up against Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen for the Quill Awards and I thought I should check out the competition for that most favored of books.
I know a lot of folks who pay attention to blurbs and/or past glories of the author: short-listed for the Booker, won the Pulitzer Prize, burned in Alabama (actually, that last one would be an incentive to be sure). Generally I ignore these things. For one, there are too many blurb-whores out there who will blurb anything that passes before their eyes and two, I’ve been burned a few times with horrible excuses for books blurbed by authors I respect. As for past glories, well, the past is the past and I don’t put a lot of stock in book awards. I’ve read more crappy Bookers and Pulitzers than good ones.
I have my own test, however unreliable it may be. I read the jacket copy first, fully aware that the idiot who wrote it in all likelihood never read the book. But, they can usually be counted on to get the essence right. If the subject matter interests me, I go to the real test; the opening page. Does it grab me? Is it, according to my own standards, well written? Does the author seem to have a clue where he/she is going? If this scrutiny passes muster, I may skim through the book, reading random pages. If I’m still satisfied after that, onto the to-be-read pile it goes.
Black Swan Green passed the test.
I started reading it several days later. As I progressed through the first few pages, my enthusiasm waned. I couldn’t seem to get into it, into the main character, the story. And the plethora of Brit idioms were getting me down. But this nagging feeling that I should read this book kept me going. Not far, mind you. I pretty much gave it up around page 30, due in no small part to the fact that while reading Black Swan Green, I was also listening to a CD version of Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. The world of Inkheart so sucked me in that I listened to it straight through. When I had finished that, I rummaged through my to-be-read pile and selected The Grid by Phillip Kerr. Interesting book, interesting play on an old theme. I read it in two days.
Rummaging once again through the to-be-read pile, I uncovered Black Swan Green. Again with that feeling that I really should read this book. It wasn’t like it pissed me off or anything, the guy is an excellent writer. Never once was I inclined to give it flying lessons. It just didn’t engage me for some reason. I equivocated for all of five or ten minutes and then what-the-helled it and picked up where I left off.
I’m glad I did.
This is a beautifully written, visually luscious, poetic story of a 13 year old boy in 1982 England. The idioms can weigh on you from time to time but idioms will do that. I’m sure a Brit reader might stumble with American idioms every bit as much as the reverse though, even after sussing out that “nicking off to the bog” meant going to the bathroom, every time it came up in the story, my mind would shift the characters into a swamp. Very disconcerting that.
Still, the detail is exquisite, complementing rather than overshadowing the storyline and Mr. Mitchell has a real handle on the angst of the 13 year old boy. Though I have seen many a year pass since that magical age, I could feel that angst surface in the deepest pit of my stomach from time to time. If I have a complaint at all, it’s that Jason Taylor, the protagonist, seems at times much too wise for his age. A fault, perhaps, but a pleasant one.
Would I recommend this book? Certainly. Do I feel it’s a better read than Water For Elephants? I can’t say I do. Is that because I sorta-kinda know Sara Gruen through my association with Backspace? Nah. Is it cause Water For Elephants is American and Black Swan Green Brit? Nah again. Put side-by-side, I feel that WFE has an ever so slight edge over BSG, plain and simple. I will say that if there was a “second choice” vote available in the Quill voting, Black Swan Green would be it.