Author, Book review, David Mitchell, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Random House, Setting

‘Black Swan Green’ by David Mitchell

BlackSwanGreen

Fiction – hardcover; Random House; 294 pages; 2006.

It’s 1982. Duran Duran are the band of the moment, Margaret Thatcher is in power and the Falklands War is in full swing.

Jason Taylor, who lives in a small Worcestershire village called Black Swan Green, is 13 years old. When he’s not at home with his squabbling parents and an older sister who wants to leave him in the lurch by fleeing to university as soon as she can, he’s at school fending off the bullies who pick on his stuttering and lack of sporting ability. Desperate to belong, he hides several guilty secrets, including a burning desire to be a poet, and muddles through a year in which his parent’s marriage disintegrates around him.

While Black Swan Green is not strictly a coming-of-age story, Jason Taylor does grow and change over the course of the 13 months in which the story is set. He loses his naivety and bolsters his poor self esteem by learning to stand up against those who bully him.

Coupled with the war against Argentina (in which a local boy is killed) and his parent’s impending separation, he learns that the world is a much bigger, maybe darker, place than Black Swan Green.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I got totally immersed in it and hungrily devoured every page in the space of a wet, windy weekend.

I loved the references to my own childhood (I am the same age as David Mitchell) and despite growing up on the opposite side of the planet couldn’t believe the similarities between a 13-year-old living in a little village in England and a 13-year-old living in a little village in Australia. I got a lot of chuckles from reminders of things I’d long forgotten, such as the excitement of buying a “TDK C-60 cassette to tape songs off the radio”!

But I have my doubts as to whether this attention to nostalgic detail will be appreciated by readers who were not young teenagers at the time in which this book is set.

Despite Mitchell’s ability to write beautifully — my favourite lines include: “Lyme Regis was a casserole of tourists. Everywhere smelt of suntan oil, hamburgers and burnt sugar” (page 161); “A sick bus growled past and made the air smell of pencils” (page 195); and “Grimy windows rectangled misty gloom. The exact colour of boredom” (page 207) — I’m not entirely convinced that his talent can paper over the fact that the book lacks a sustained plot.

Essentially Black Swan Green is a mood piece, a beautiful, atmospheric and evocative mood piece, but a mood piece nonetheless. Each chapter is a self-sustained short story in its own right, and there’s nothing really tying them all together, apart from the voice of the narrator. Characters mentioned in one chapter disappear only to reappear unexpectedly several chapters later on. This annoyed me, because the narrative is linear, and most linear narratives don’t treat characters as if they can be turned on and off like a switch.

Still, this is just a minor irritation and I wouldn’t let this put you off reading this wonderfully entertaining and highly evocative novel.

Author, Book review, China, Fiction, Lisa See, literary fiction, Publisher, Random House, Setting

‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’ by Lisa See

SnowFlower

Fiction – paperback; Random House; 288 pages; 2006.

Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a gorgeous, heart-breaking tale of love and loss set in nineteenth century China. It follows the friendship between two young girls who are paired together from the age of seven in an arrangement known as laotong, an emotional match that lasts an entire lifetime.

Lily, the narrator, and her “old same”, Snow Flower, live in separate villages in a remote county, one girl is rich and the other poor.

In a society where women are regarded as worthless,  the girls find solace in their special bond by communicating with one another using a unique exclusively female language called nu shu, writing secret messages on a silk fan that is carried backwards and forwards between them.

Over the course of their lives they share everything despite the vast differences in their social standing. Both of them confront all kinds of agonies — footbinding, arranged marriages, family tragedies, disease, famine and war — and experience great joys – the birth of children, wedding feasts and festivals. But when a misunderstanding arises between them, their lives are changed forever.

Like the very best novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is not only an unforgettable and entertaining story (I read it in two sittings), it introduces us to a fascinating world few of us could possibly imagine, much less understand. While I knew about the existence of footbinding, an old Chinese custom which is no longer legal, I was not aware of the process or the history behind it until reading this book. It is easy for us today to think of this custom as cruel and abusive, which it undoubtedly was, but See has written this book so convincingly it is hard to feel anything but empathy for the girls who endured it and the mothers who carried it out.

This lovely, straightforward narrative also reveals much about how women lived their lives at that time in history, how important it was to give birth to a heir and why the shape of their feet determined their future wealth and happiness.

All in all this is a beautiful read about friendship, regret, atonement and survival. I was sorry to reach the final page and will be thinking about this story for years
to come, I am sure.