There is a moment early on in David Mitchell's Black Swan Green that I found quite chilling: the protagonist, Jason Taylor, is skating alone--or so he thinks--on the frozen lake when he notices that another kid is following his orbit, staying just out of his line of sight. He calls out to the kid, but there is no answer until Jason guesses that the skater must be the ghost of Ralph Bredon, a boy who supposedly slipped through the ice and drowned years ago. "Is it cold?" Jason asks. You get used the cold, Ralph says. And then Jason asks Ralph what it is like--what it is like to be dead, one guesses--and then slam, takes a near-crippling spill on the ice.
It's a well-executed piece of near-fantasy that reminded me of the better portions of Mitchell's previous book, Cloud Atlas. But the unfortunate thing is that this episode, some twenty or thirty pages into the novel, was the high point of Black Swan Green for me, which never deigns to slip into that sort of is-it-real-or-is-it-not mysticism for the rest of its length.
It isn't that Black Swan Green is bereft of ideas; in fact, episode-by-episode Mitchell's inventiveness is frequently on display. It's impossible not to love scenes like the one in which Jason is inducted into his classmates' secret fraternity, the Spooks, by running across six backyards without getting caught, or the penultimate episode in which Jason works up the sac to crush a bully's calculator in a shop vise. But in spite of the conceit--which follows Jason for almost exactly one year--there is little cohesion to tie these episodes together. True life is messy, of course, and not at all focused, but Mitchell's richly symbolist writing works best when it's complimented by a strong sense of structure, like in Cloud Atlas. Mitchell attempts to give the novel the illusion of a plot arc by mapping Jason's experience onto the slow unraveling of his parents' marriage, but it is this facet of the book that is least interesting, the most lacking in pathos and insight.
Instead, Black Swan Green can't overcome how scattershot it is; the most interesting threads drop from the novel without warning. Some, like the introduction of a local band of gypsies, come so late in the novel that they seem shoe-horned in and lose whatever impact they might have had. The worst offender is the appearance of Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, and elderly foreigner who beings to tutor Jason after reading the poetry he's pseudonymously published in the church gazette. De Crommelynck is one of the most interesting characters from Cloud Atlas, and her presence here suggests the kind of big-picture orchestration that Cloud Atlas promised as a Mitchell hallmark. But two chapters into de Crommelynck's appearance, Jason comes to be tutored only to find her packed up and gone, deported. She's barely mentioned for the rest of the novel--so much for the epiphany, eh?
By contrast, Black Swan Green is at its best in chapters like "The Bridle Path," which follows Jason on a spur-of-the-moment journey down an old decrepit bridle path to find the legendary secret tunnel on the other side in the Malvern Hills, only to be beset on all sides by the agents of cruelty and lust. The result is Homeric in tone, as one suspects Mitchell desired of the novel as a whole, but Mitchell seems to forget that at the heart of The Odyssey is a sense of physical movement. Black Swan Green is too static, too unfocused to really succeed.
I know Brent loved this book, and I liked it too, but I thought I'd go for the dissenting voice in this case. I will say that it hasn't dampened my interest in reading Mitchell's earlier work, Ghostwritten and number9dream.