A review of

Black Swan Green

by David Mitchell

Central question: After elementary school is over, where can one find recess?
Format: 227 pp., cloth; Size: 5 1/2 " by 8 1/4"; Price: $22.95; Publisher: Random House; Editor: David Ebershoff; Print run: 50,000; Novel written under the influence of: Earl Grey tea, a confection called youkan, and the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti; Name of the “Dawn Madden” character in the novel comes from: The given name and the family name of the first two girls author had crushes on; Representative sentence: “Me, I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right.”

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Christopher Byrd

Christopher Byrd is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

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