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Friday, April 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Black Swan Green": A mind beyond his years

Seattle Times book critic

"Black Swan Green"
by David Mitchell
Random House, 294 pp., $23.95

Being 13 years old has rarely been such a brutal business.

Young Jason Taylor, the narrator of David Mitchell's perfectly executed new novel, is a stammerer, a precociously gifted writer, a fount of unusual perceptions ("Listening to houses breathe makes you weightless") and a boy of decidedly odd tastes ("Lavender's my favorite smell, after Wite-Out and bacon rind").

These attributes do nothing to help him in achieving the class popularity he longs for or in dealing with school bullies. Nor does the adolescent code of honor he buys into — no tattling about misbehaving classmates to parents or teachers — serve him well.

Yet the gantlet Jason runs — of persecution, secret adolescent rites, unnerving encounters with strangers, mysterious tensions at home — clearly brings out the nascent adult in him. Listening in on his adventures and ordeals, you can see a mind emerging that has both a reliable moral compass and a stark recognition of its own demons.

David Mitchell reads from "Black Swan Green,"

7 p.m. Wednesday, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

To watch Jason veer between wildest flight of fancy and grimmest teen-Realpolitik is an ongoing shock and delight. The gap between his facility with language and his incomplete understanding of his world makes for considerable humor. His growing resourcefulness in dealing with his hostile environment is always compelling.

The year is 1982. The setting is Black Swan Green, a village in the River Severn valley in western England. Margaret Thatcher is in power — and about to reach heroic status in Jason's eyes, as she hangs tough in the Falklands.

Jason's father works for Greenland ("the grocery store chain, not ... the country"), while his stay-at-home mum busies herself with extravagant redecoration schemes. Jason's sometimes annoying, sometimes friendly older sister Julia supplies him with his music soundtrack: Human League, Kate Bush, etc., with pride of place going to a Roxy Music golden oldie ("this kazookering song called 'Virginia Plain' ").

While the middle-class Taylors live in Black Swan Green, they're not exactly of it. As Julia points out, "If you haven't lived in Black Swan Green since the War of the Roses, you'll never be a local."

That may explain the almost tribal ferocity of the village boys who gang up on anyone different from them. Jason, with his stammer, is an obvious target. But he has secrets, too — secrets that might save him.

Chief of them is his talent with words, at least on paper. Then there's his curiosity, powerful enough to force him through several intimidating doors of experience, including an accidental wander into a gypsy encampment and a meeting with a cantankerous old lady, Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, who offers to be his writing mentor. (Mitchell fans will recognize her from his 2004 novel "Cloud Atlas.")

A slim narrative thread is provided by Jason's damaging of a family heirloom and his desperate attempts to replace it. But the real story momentum comes from the way his preconceptions about the world continually explode in his face over the course of a year. The Falklands War, the actions of various adults around him — all keep confounding him.

"Black Swan Green" is smaller in scale and more modest in ambition than Mitchell's Man Booker Prize-nominated "Cloud Atlas." Yet in most ways, it's a more satisfying performance. Where "Cloud Atlas" sometimes overreached — why did the speech of those post-apocalyptic Hawaiian islanders contain so many Britishisms? — the new book is utterly sure of its turf and has full, playful command over its narrator's 1980s Brit Teen Speak .

While simpler in structure than "Cloud Atlas," "Black Swan Green" does offer some mind-game pleasures. By the time his 14th birthday approaches, for instance, Jason is confident enough of his writing to begin making art from his life, with the result that the book's narrative starts swallowing its own tail — or tale. And the broadening compass of his epiphanies — "The world never stops unmaking what the world never stops making" — makes clear his bright mind and hunger for knowledge will be his salvation.

In short, for all the torment and self-chastisement he puts himself through, this is one lovable kid — and one dream-read of a book.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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