Book Review – Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Part of the joy of books, for me, is in the hunt. Discovering new authors, tracking down their books in secondhand bookstores or publisher’s discard piles, reading reviews of their work on the net – all of this is almost as fun as actually reading. As I’m a poor teacher, I can rarely afford to buy new books. Consequently, I almost never buy new books by authors I’m not familar with. Furthermore, I make sure I research the novel in question on the internet first, to make sure I’m likely to like it. All of this serves to defeat what bookstores are supposed to be about, namely going in, picking up a title that looks interesting, handing over some money and leaving. And here’s the rub. Books in this country are FAR too expensive. These days a b size paperback (i.e. a small or ‘mass market’ paperback) will set you back around $22. An a size, or trade paperback (i.e. the hardback sized paperbacks) cost in the vicinity of $30-35. Considering that most novels (with the exception of epic fantasy) are somewhere in the order of 250-400 pages long, this does not necessarily represent a sound investment. Therefore, I just don’t buy new books by new authors. This is surely poison to the entire publishing industry, and I doubt I’m the only person who can’t afford these kind of prices.
Given all of this, then, I was trawling the remainder stand at Collins Booksellers in Midland on Saturday in the hope of finding something interesting. For those who don’t understand what remaindered books are all about, here’s the deal. Publishers print a certain number of copies of a novel, and then if the print run fails to sell out in a given time (usually a few months), then the book is ‘remaindered.’ This means that the books are sent back to the publisher, where they are marked, usually with a vertical line across the top of the book. Then they end up on these discard piles at the front of your local bookstore, where the price is drastically reduced. I’m fairly sure that remaindered books don’t net the author any royalties, which is a shame for them, but it’s generally good news for the book-buyer. While there isn’t the selection of titles you’d find on the main shelves of a bookstore, you can expect to pay $5 for a small paperback and perhaps $10 for a large one. This is the kind of price books ought to cost. If books were as cheap as this, then I suspect the publishing industry, and reading communities in general, wouldn’t be in such a parlous state.
It was on that discard stand at Collins that I picked up two books, “Hunter’s Run” by Gardner Dozois, George R. R. Martin and Daniel Abraham, and “Black Swan Green” by David Mitchell. Some people hate trade paperbacks, but I love them. Only problem is, $30-35 is an absurd amount of money to hand over for something that might take me four to six hours to read, depend on the length. $9, however, is much more like it. And I’m glad I did pick up “Black Swan Green” because it was a very interesting book indeed. Upon completing it, I did some research on David Mitchell, a British author of three other novels, a couple of which were shortlisted for the Booker prize. “Black Swan Green” was so good that I am now determined to track down copies of Mitchell’s earlier novels, even if I have to…ahem…pay full price for them. And this is why publishing is broken. If books are this expensive relative to the amount of money one is likely to have in one’s pocket, then said reader isn’t likely to take a chance on a new author. If not for the remainder pile, which publishers and authors alike regard as a sort of ‘last chance saloon,’ then I would not have heard of “Black Swan Green” or David Mitchell at all.
I get the idea that “Black Swan Green” is a departure for David Mitchell from the kind of book he usually seems to write. Mitchell’s third novel, “Cloud Atlas,” is apparently an epic, genre-spanning, time-hopping saga, with something like six different narrators. This sounds very interesting. But “Black Swan Green” is a fairly straightforward tale of a thirteen year old boy in early eighties Britain. There are 13 chapters, set in 13 months spanning the period Jan 1982 to Jan 1983. The boy, Jason Taylor, lives in a Worcestershire town with the unlikely name of Black Swan Green. So this is a coming of age story, except that it deals with the period leading up to adolescence, rather than the normal age of sixteen or seventeen that usually seems to be favoured. Jason has a stammer which he calls ‘Hangman,’ an older sister named Julia, and a lot of difficulties with the local bullies. All of this reminds me of my own childhood in England, although I left those gloomy shores long before I was Jason Taylor’s age.
What is it that makes a book interesting? Sometimes it’s a cracking plot, sometimes an author’s ability to create interesting characters or memorable dialogue. Sometimes it’s harder to define. I’m wondering about this because on the surface, “Black Swan Green” shouldn’t be an especially interesting novel. I mean, it’s about a young boy going to a speech therapist, being initiated into a secret society only to be turfed out again, etc etc. And yet this is fascinating. I can only conclude that it must have something to do with the author’s ability to shape ordinary experiene into something memorable. It must be to do with selection of detail. I think of novels as ‘compressed time’ – as though the author has squeezed the oranges that are our months and years into a potent juice called an interesting novel. An author who does this incredibly well at times is another Brit, M. John Harrison. I contend that his novel “Climbers” is one of the greatest in the English language in the last thirty years. What is it about? Well, being unemployed, doing some rock climbing, drinking some coffee. It’s a mystery to me, but “Climbers” is an outstanding novel, and “Black Swan Green” is too.
It hasn’t escaped my attention that I’ve managed to write 1000 words barely mentioning the plot of “Black Swan Green,” but no matter. David Mitchell is surely one of the best writers I have had the pleasure to read in recent years, and as soon as I can find two pennies to rub together, I will send off for a copy of “Cloud Atlas.”