A review of
Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell
Whether or not it’s modish for novelists to annex genres, a benchmark separates authors who nick anything off the supply line from those who wield genres as a surgeon his instruments. Trekking from travelogue to belles lettres to mystery to chiseled comedy to science fiction, David Mitchell’s last novel, Cloud Atlas, exceeded literary gumbo. Given the tightened scope here, a bit of fidgeting may be needed to exorcise one’s preconceptions that waggery is around the bend, but as the young narrator, Jason Taylor, realizes, people can seldom afford to meet others’ around-the-clock expectations.
Fleshing out such elementary wisdom is what coming-of-age novels are about. No doubt, that label will make some grimace and others wax nostalgic, but this novel is OK with caressing its traditional parameters. It settles for the sparks of verisimilitude instead of the fireworks of reinvention, while transmitting the uncomfortably comfortable sensation of smacking into the participants in one’s young life. It helps that the novel is compact and deliberate, since unexpected encounters can grate if tact or brevity is fumbled. It also helps that the narrator is pithy, pitiable, and agreeable. Jason, a poet who routinely travels into a stratum of refined perception, still comes across as a kid. Despite his poetic investigations, he shies away from registering the fissures in his parents’ marriage, because a young mind can only deal with so much.
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