Madonna, Lynne Cheney, and Ray Romano have all written children’s books, why not rising British literary star David Mitchell? This young-adult novel is a fine one, too, capturing the innocence of its youthful narrator and the exultation and loss that comes with experience and maturity. It may be Mitchell’s most accessible and transparent work to date and, like the author’s three other novels, it poses enigmas.
Jason Taylor’s story starts in the title village, a forgettable blip in England’s least-memorable county, Worcestershire. The village name seems a rebus or riddle, but in fact it is a local joke; the town may have a green, but no swans of any color have ever been seen there. Nor, at first glance, much else of interest.
And so, like most kids on the cusp of 13 (oddly, his birthday is never mentioned), Jason is bored and terrified. His parents storm with inexplicable conflicts for which he seems vaguely responsible. His smart-ass 18-year-old sister refers to him as “thing.” And his secret aspirations to be a poet don’t bode well for his standing with his schoolmates. As for his torturously controlled stammering, just one slip will make him a pariah.
Curious how many heroes of coming-of-age-stories have speech impediments but verbal gifts. For example, another teenaged stammerer narrates Nicholas Moseley’s Imago Bird. It was published in 1980, around the same time that Mitchell’s novel is set. Both books suggest that such a handicap might spawn a talent for transforming experience into art. Jason doesn’t see it that way yet, but by the end of the book he seems like he’s well on his way to doing so. Could this book be the result?
It appears at first like a diary. Each of the 13 chapters covers a month, from January to January, and the narrator fills his account with pop-cultural dross, period slang, and current events, most prominently the Falkland Islands’ War. The details ring true, as does the voice — vulnerable, sweet, and maturing. It relates the woes typical of a young-adult novel: the dread of ostracism, the brutality of peers, the opacity of adults, the hormonally addled longing for the unattainable. And these teach the traditional lessons: tolerance, self-reliance, and the inevitability of change.
Another teacher offers different lessons. Imperious, ancient Madame Crommelynck briefly takes charge of Jason’s poetry. A taste of his verse occasionally has leaked into the narrative in phrases that sound a little unnatural, such as “Venus swung bright from the ear of the moon.” “It says, ‘Am I not pretty pretty?’ ” Madame remarks upon the phrase’s reappearance in one of Jason’s poems. “I answer, ‘Go to the hell!’ ” She also comments on the effort of Jason’s poem, and thus the novel itself, to relate his domestic turmoil to the war waged by Margaret Thatcher.
This reflexivity, as old as Quixote, emerges as naturally as the rest of the story. It will nudge readers of Mitchell’s previous novel Cloud Atlas to recall that in one of that book’s stories within stories Madame Crommelynck was the 18-year-old femme-fatale tormentor of Robert Frobisher, the doomed genius composer. Is her reincarnation here one of the author’s creations teaching him how to create? The end of innocence lies not in experience, Mitchell suggests, but in artifice.