Black Swan Green

A lucid, structurally sound, and yet totally unmemorable novel.

The coming-of-age novel is made for melodrama. The passionate crushes, the family crises, the protagonist's final realization that all you have to do is Be Yourself; it all reeks of a TV movie of the week. But when handled skillfully—hello, Mr. Twain! Hi, J.D.!— authors cut right through the treacle, and the characters resonate. David Mitchell's fourth novel is the first to feature a linear, one-narrator story line, and it falls somewhere in the unremarkable territory between the Lifetime Channel and Huckleberry Finn. It's the unexceptional story of an unexceptional 13-year-old living in an unexceptional town in England in 1982. First he's an outcast, then he's a cool kid, then he's an outcast again, then he stands up for himself, then he earns respect from the bullies. In between, he dreams of girls, watches his parents' marriage fall apart, and listens to the Police and Duran Duran and Blondie and Adam and the Ants, and plays Space Invaders and Pac-Man, and watches Chariots of Fire and . . . You see the first problem here, right? Writers too often feel they need to toss in pop-culture references as generational touchstones, but those references are the cheapest and hollowest of scene-setters. It also doesn't help the believability any that this is the kind of book in which '80s characters use Dickensian phrases like "Bob's your uncle" and "Beg pudding." Mitchell's writing is lucid, structurally sound, and yet totally unmemorable. A week after I read his first book, Ghostwritten, I couldn't have described the cover art, much less the plot. Black Swan Green is similarly ephemeral. Lines like "Music's a wood you walk through" and "Hate smells of burnt dead fireworks" are bad, but they're not truly awful. And neither is this novel. It's like an adolescent summer afternoon, passably entertaining, then forgotten.

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