"Blind boars of wind crashed through the nervy woods," reports Jason Taylor, frightened schoolboy, as he heads toward the darker reaches of the trees, and of his imagination, in a grisly English town in 1982. "Listening's reading," he notes elsewhere, "if you close your eyes." The sounds and tastes, the trembling feelings of his world course through the wide-awake boy like channeled spirits. Yet what makes the pungent spray of syllables heart-rending is the fact that Jason is a stammerer and has to avoid certain letters even when reading aloud in class.
In Black Swan Green (Random House; 294 pages), the most prodigiously daring and imaginative young writer in Britain brings his formidable gifts very close to home. In his first novel, Ghostwritten, in 1999, David Mitchell, now 37, invented the planetary novel, in a way, by setting nine stories in eight countries and describing a single spirit that ran through them all like a fuse. In his third novel, 2004's Cloud Atlas, he turned the postmodern book inside out by setting pieces in six different ages and voices, then doubling back (a little too fancily perhaps) to explore the idea of "eternal recurrence." In his new, most deeply personal work, Mitchell does something even more remarkable: he makes the well-worn coming-of-age novel feel vivid and uncomfortable and new. The revolution here is not of form, but of content and sensibility.
Black Swan Green tells the story of 13-year-old Jason in 13 chapters, one for every month of 1982 (plus one for January 1983), and describes an archetypal striver, rendered lonely and vulnerable by his sensitivity and terrified of bullies, girls and his inability to say words beginning with s and n. His family is coming apart, he somehow senses, as is the country around him (it's the year of the Falklands War and Maggie Thatcher's unexpected revolution). One part of him leans toward knowingness, but the rest is mired in a child's supercharged universe of witches and spirits and "Ghosts of Might Be" in the woods. He is reading Watership Down while dreaming of Debbie Harry's "full-cream lips."
One of the passing wonders of Mitchell's memoir-like time capsule is the photographic fidelity with which it captures Britain at a turning point. Here are the Asteroids games, the Connors-McEnroe matches on TV, the Jean Michel Jarre LPs and screenings of Chariots of Fire. Teenagers canoodle to Three Times a Lady and weep over Kramer vs. Kramer. Yet those familiar details are lit up with a sense of magic that makes Middle England seem more wondrous than Middle-earth. "Birdsong's the thoughts of a wood. Beautiful, it was, but boys aren't allowed to say 'beautiful' 'cause it's the gayest word going."
Black Swan Green proceeds (more in the manner of a scrapbook than a thriller) through the seasons of the year, and then, exactly at the midpoint of the novel, Jason stumbles upon an exotic old lady--a Belgian Miss Havisham--who throws open the doors on an alien world of poetry and music and Continental panache (everything forbidden to an English boy). Madame Crommelynck also starts to comment on what we have been reading, asserting that "Beautiful words ruin your poetry" and "A poet throws all but truth in the cellar." Suddenly, as in the works of Thomas Pynchon and Herman Melville, one feels the roof of the narrative lifted off and oneself in thrall to a boy possessed.
The novel thus matures into, among a hundred other things, a moving and eloquent portrait of the artist as a young man. Writing is the way Jason can communicate without a stammer, have his own say and get back at the world. Writing is how he can make time disappear and his tormenting classmates shrink into playthings. Writing becomes, in effect, an imaginative sanctuary and escape.
With Cloud Atlas Mitchell won a slew of prizes, sold more than 400,000 copies and established himself in many minds as the most accomplished cult novelist of the century so far. Black Swan Green goes one step further by showing that he's as vital--as shouting and original and central--a voice as the contemporary novel has to offer. He's shown us dazzling power before; here he wins us with vulnerability.