Let me first say that I did not love this just because David Mitchell wrote it. If you really want to know, I think this novel is a departure from the Mitchell that most readers are acquainted with, the one who is daring and experimental and form-defying. This one is a little tame and somehow timid. Some readers might even find disappointment in this novel if they are expecting a structure similar to Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten. I haven’t read the latter yet, but I heard so much of it.
So the novel is written like a monthly diary. Thirteen chapters, from January to the next January, tell the story of Jason, a boy who is at the edges of his childhood and adolescence. We read about his stammering issues, his secret love for poetry, his rise and fall at the popularity ladder of their school, some issues with his family, his misadventures with his friends and enemies, and then his first stumbling at teenage love. This is screaming young adult, no?
But it wasn’t marketed as such, probably because Mitchell is not an exclusive young adult fiction writer. I think though that this is something that young adult readers should read. I also think this has to be his most personal work, drawing scenes from his childhood and cutting out his protagonist from the cardboard that is himself. And since it is such, there’s a sense of intimacy in it. It’s like being let in for some fond childhood secrets.
‘Revolting’ was the last word I ever spoke as someone who’d never kissed a girl. I’d always worried but kissing’s not so tricky. Your lips know what to do, just like sea anemones know what to do. Kissing spins you, like Flying Teacups. Oxygen the girl breathes out, you breathe in.
But your teeth can clunk, something chronic.
Thirteen chapters at the age of thirteen. What does one go through when he is thirteen? One is too old to run around and play, one is too young to get involved with adult issues, one is caught in that little crack of existence ignored by the world as one copes with the physical and emotional changes that are unwillingly taking place, and, to make matters worse, one is at that moment where choosing between your real self and the outside self can be so critical.
The last item: Jason loves writing poems. Jason has a dorky friend. Can Jason let these two out in the open? The boys of Black Swan Green would definitely not react positively to do this. In fact, he will most probably be placed at the top of the to-bully list if he does, so he makes some compromises. How long he’ll stick to it, we have to find out.
More on his love for writing poems, Jason has developed a knack for looking up synonyms of words that his mouth wouldn’t let him speak. You see, Jason stammers at certain words. He’s as much a stammerer as the real Mitchell is. Let’s say his tongue gets tied at the word “beautiful”, he’d search his brain for a synonym that would be acceptable but at the same time would not give him a reputation of being an innate wordsmith, for having a rich vocabulary is something that is not acceptable among the boys of that town. You know, big words is easily tantamount to being a big dork, or more of being a big gay boy.
So you see, there is a constant battle between Jason being his true self and Jason being his socially acceptable self in order not to be an outcast in their school’s circle. I think such an issue is fit for a young adult novel, but why doesn’t it have a massive appeal among the young adult readers?
Probably because the narrative isn’t linear. Linear storytelling is more focused on plot, isn’t it? But I think this novel focuses more on characterization, in this case our poet trapped inside a stammering boy. Although the monthly chapters are in order, they are episodic in structure and stylistic for a thirteen-year old protagonist, which is to be expected from one who has finer tastes. At least the author did not totally abandon his reputation for being the writer that he is, and that is exactly why I like this novel. Quite a risky move, yes, but it still paid off.
Although there are themes on family, friendship, self-identity, and young love, there are also some regarding the war and the social class divisions. So yes, it is packed with a lot, although these are not blasted in front of our faces.
Fans of Mitchell will also be delighted to know that characters from his previous novel, Cloud Atlas, appear here. One, from the Robert Frobisher part of Cloud Atlas, will become Jason’s mentor of sorts. This character will also let the boy poet listen to the famous Cloud Atlas sextet. This continuity of the previous novel gives me that feeling that Cloud Atlas is not yet finished after reading the last page. Its life extends to Mitchell’s other novels, giving the author’s followers something to look forward to.
But more delightful than that is reading the experiences of a thirteen-year old and being indulged to look back at your own experiences at that age. Nostalgic, yes, but it brings some giddy feelings if it is done once in a while. You find yourself comparing notes and agreeing to that young adolescent voice. After all, this is the whole point of a writer writing behind someone like Jason: to say things that can be better said by the younger voice.