Book Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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Black Swan Green – David Mitchell (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006)

This was the fourth book I’ve read by David Mitchell and his work surprises me each time. If you’ve read Cloud Atlas then you may know Mitchell as an author who isn’t afraid to play with form. But what really impresses me about Mitchell’s novels is how entirely different they are from one another.

Black Swan Green is thirteen chapters containing thirteen stories in a year of the life of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor. We begin in January and end in January of the following year and watch Jason’s life unfold in the village of Black Swan Green in the early 1980s.

Jason lives a fairly ordinary, middle class life with his family. His middle-management dad, housewife mom, and his older sister. Each chapter shines a light on a crucial moment or experience in Jason’s life. Sometimes this occurs over a few weeks, sometimes only a few hours.

Having never been a teenage boy in England in the 1980s, I can’t speak to the authenticity of Jason as a character but can only say that Jason’s voice as narrator feels very real. There is cadence, slang, and rhythm that feel very authentic and honest and how a boy of Jason’s age, time, and locale would speak. Jason has a stammer which Mitchell uses to show character development in a subtle manner. While the stammer doesn’t define Jason, it clearly dominates his life in some unexpected ways. Mitchell does a great job at showing how it blocks Jason’s speech and effects his interactions, particularly in school, and how it creates a distance between Jason and those around him, keeping him from sharing his true thoughts. Jason refers to his stammer as “the Hangman”. I haven’t seen a speech impediment used in fiction much before and found this fascinating.

Black Swan Green – both the book and the village – is peopled with a variety of characters. Funny, affectionate, morbid, mysterious. We get to see the same characters pop up throughout Jason’s year and as the book (and year) continues, we see some behind the scenes developments. Some of these are a part of Jason’s story while others are simply hinted at. This gives the novel a strong feeling of existing in a real world, filled with individuals who have their own lives and tales.

All together, I loved the novel. Jason is a strong character. He feels very human but with enough traits to make him an interesting one to follow for a year. And Mitchell certainly captures how truly awful being thirteen can be!

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What I Read – April 2018

READ:

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains – Yasuko Thanh (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

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I went to school with Suko and so was familiar with her unique style and had an idea of where her interests lie. This historical novel set in Vietnam lined up with my expectations and I love her short stories (Her collection Floating Like the Dead is great) but I struggled with this one a bit. It came together in the end for me but took me a while to get oriented.

Funny Once – Antonya Nelson (Bloomsbury, 2014)

These short stories were great but it took me so long to read them that I think a lot of the impact was lost on me. The fault was my own – I borrowed this as an online resource from the library and so read it on my laptop. And reading books electronically just does not work for me. Turns out I’m kind of old-fashioned when it comes to books.

When I was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson (Picador, 2012)

Overall, I enjoyed this essay collection. I really like Robinson’s writing and I agree with her on a lot of theological and political questions. However, some of these essays felt really American and so I had trouble staying interested. They also felt overly optimistic about America, which made me realize how much the world has changed since 2012.

The great narrative, to which we as Christians are called to be faithful, begins at the beginning of all things and ends at the end of all things, and within the arc of it civilizations blossom and flourish, wither and perish. This would seems a great extravagance, all the beautiful children of earth lying down in a final darkness. But no, there is that wondrous love to assure us that the world is more precious than we can possibly imagine.

  • Marilynne Robinson, “Wondrous Love”

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – Hilary Mantel (HarpeCollins Publisher, 2014)

I found myself much more engaged by this collection of short stories. This was my first read by Mantel and although I enjoyed it I still don’t feel the need to read any of her novels. The title story of this collection did force me to do some reading up on Margaret Thatcher though, since I knew shockingly little.

Brother – David Chariandy (McClelland & Stewart, 2017)

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Loved this book. Read my full review here.

All around us in the Park were mothers who had journeyed far beyond what they knew, who dreamed of raising children who might have just a little more than they did, children who might reward sacrifice and redeem a past. And there were victories, you must know. Fears were banished by the scents from simmering pots, denigration countered by freshly laundered tablecloth. History beaten back by the provision of clothes and yearly school supplies.

  • David Chariandy, Brother

Black Swan Green – David Mitchell (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006)

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I reviewed this one too! Maybe I’m on a roll! Check back on Wednesday for the review.

If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, “When you’re ready.”

  • David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Didn’t Finish:

White Cat – Holly Black

Someone raved about this book to me once and so I’ve long had it on my list and finally got a copy of it. As soon as I picked it up at the library I knew it wasn’t my normal fare. I don’t read a lot fantasy but wanted to give it a fair go. I think I got about halfway through. I can see why a fantasy reader would love it but it’s not for me. (I also, in general, hate book series and that biased me against it further.)

Currently Reading:

The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

The Redress of Poetry – Seamus Heaney

[Poetry] becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a more fully empowered way.

  • Seamus Heaney, “The Redress of Poetry”

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The Boat People – Sharon Bala

 

Book Review: Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida

 

Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 – Naoki Higashida (Random House, 2017)

This collection of short essays (plus an interview and a short story) follows Higashida’s previous book translated into English, The Reason I Jump. I haven’t read Higashida before and while The Reason I Jump may provide some helpful context and personal history, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read it first. It also seems that Higashida has quite a bit more writing that hasn’t yet been translated from Japanese to English.

The introduction by David Mitchell (who also does the translation, along with KA Yoshida) provides an excellent background into Higashida’s story, as well as offering Mitchell’s viewpoint as to why this book is so important. Short version: Higashida was considered severely autistic and non-verbal until a new way of communicating through an alphabet chart was figured out. This new communication revealed Higashida to have a complex and emphatic inner life, exactly like any other young man his age.

Higashida is now in his mid-twenties and his writing is deliberate and thoughtful. The segments are not long as communication, both written and spoken, is not a quick process for him. He offers insights into how his own mind works and methods that help him in his interactions with those around him. Higashida doesn’t suggest that these methods would work for everyone with autism and the book is certainly not a how-to guide. That said, I can’t help but think that it would be a helpful and powerful read for anyone who works or lives alongside someone with autism.

While this is admittedly well outside my field of expertise, it does seem that there have been a few highly publicized stories in recent years of so-called severe autistic people who, it turned out, were fully aware of their surroundings and needed only to find a way to communicate with those around them. And, as Mitchell points out in his introduction, these new found ways of communication revealed that the stereotype of a lack of empathy in those on the autistic spectrum is perhaps a false one.

Higashida certainly writes about the world with a lot of interest and empathy. We get a sense of his frustration at his own behaviours and his strong desire for compassion and patience from  those around him. There is some discussion of styles that didn’t work for him and that he wouldn’t recommend but there is not condemnation toward those who haven’t understood him. His writing about his relationship with his mother seems particularly tender.

The book is a slow read, one to be dipped into here and there rather than read in one sitting. I do believe it’s an important one though, especially for teachers and others who may work alongside autistic people.

What I Read – April 2015

The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2008)

I once tried to read a novel by Ali Smith, lost interest part way in and returned it unfinished to the library. I did finish reading this short story collection but now, less than a month later, can’t remember much about it. I wanted to give Smith another try since her latest novel has gotten a lot of buzz but her writing just doesn’t grab me. This short story collection plays around a lot with narration and the art of storytelling but the stories didn’t stick with me or grab me in any meaningful way.

The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji (Knopf, 2007)

It took me a long time to get into this novel. It was probably not until two-thirds into the novel that I felt really excited to know what would happen next. I can’t say if this is a fault of the writing or on my part since I was constantly getting interrupted while reading it. It was different than any other book about India that I’ve read and I did enjoy what it showed of Indian history and religion. The “big reveal” at the end of the novel was disappointing (and pretty obvious) and, I thought, added very little to the story. I liked the back and forth between the 13th century history and the 20th and thought Vassanji wove mythology and history together well.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

This was obviously a re-read for me. While Pearl has many board books and I do read them to her, at her young age, the thing she enjoys most is simply hearing my voice and being held. So I figured I’d read her something more enjoyable for me. At least until she’s a little older. So we’ve started in on The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Random House, 2010)

I greatly enjoyed this book. I’ve read three books by David Mitchell now and each one has been superbly written. The Thousand Autumns plays with format and timelines less than Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks. Mitchell does do well with alternating narrators though and through multiple characters tells a compelling story of a time and place in history that I was very unfamiliar with – Dutch trade in Japan during the late 18th century. While Japan was extremely closed off to the rest of the world during this time period, a few foreign traders were allowed onto a small island called Deshima. Mitchell uses this setting to explore ideas of foreignness, home, and imprisonment. I appreciated how he told the story from a Dutch and Japanese perspective, giving weight to both sides and demonstrating both how similar and different humans can be. The story does veer towards the unbearably creepy at one point with a hint of the fantastical that Mitchell uses in his other novels but this one’s definitely a historical novel rather than a fantasy one.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (Vintage Books Edition, 1989)

I’d read a few of these short stories before – it’s hard to get out of any sort of University literature-related degree without reading the title story from this collection. Carver is one of those writers that I appreciate but when I sit down and read a whole body of his work, I find him very bleak. (I have the same problem with Alice Munro, actually.) These are stories of dying love, relationships ended. Carver’s style is very spare, rather stark. I found myself reminded occasionally of Hemingway, though I think Hemingway does description much better.

Small Island by Andrea Levy (Review, 2004)

This book suffers from a front cover problem. By which I mean the front cover has never appealed to me, to the point of putting me off from reading the novel for years. (I know, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but, let’s face it, we all do.) Fortunately for me, I finally looked past the boring cover and read the book. The main action of the novel takes place in London, in 1948, amidst the changing norms and social constructs of a post-war nation. There are also substantial flashbacks – before the war in both England and Jamaica, and some scenes set during World War II, both in England and overseas. Levy does an excellent job of maintaining third person narration while moving between characters. Voice is also terrific as she captures the sounds of Jamaican English. (There’s a continuing theme of Jamaican characters not being understood by the English that heartbreakingly captures the struggle of immigrants.) This is a book about race but it’s also about longing, a search for something bigger, and about ignorance – both chosen and accidental.

Currently Reading:

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks