Friday, December 08, 2006

Black Swan Green

There was a time, not too long ago, when things were named after people we wanted to honour. Schools were named after explorers: Paul Kane High School here in St. Albert, Simon Fraser University in BC. But now you simply must have a corporate name for your public institution. And Mr. Schulich is the king of this, attaching his name to: Schulich School of Business (York U), Schulich School of Medicine (UWO), Schulich School of Music (McGill) and the Schulich School of Engineering (U of Calgary). No doubt if the University of Calgary was founded today it would be Encana University. Syncrude U?

I was reminded of this when I read that the Costa Book Award nominations were out. “The what” you ask? Apparently the Costa Awards are the Awards Formerly Known as the Whitbread Awards. Costa is a UK coffee company and they have taken on sponsorship of these literary awards, which Whitbread began sponsoring in 1971. When the Man Group took over sponsorship of the Booker awards, they had the good idea to keep the “Booker” name, making the award the “Man Booker” formally, or just good old Booker to the rest of us. As in the “Scotiabank Giller Prize”. Just Giller thanks.

But anyway, the Costa nominations are interesting as this jury seemed to buck the trend of going for lesser-known, even obscure, books and chose four good reads. The award page actually doesn’t say they are “the best books”, rather “The Costa Book Awards recognise the most enjoyable books of the last year by writers based in the UK and Ireland.”

The nominees:

· Restless by William Boyd
· Saving Caravaggio by Neil Griffiths
· A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
· Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

All of them are great books but I can imagine some critical sniffing here and there: “Restless is a thriller for heaven’s sake!” “Not Mitchell’s best” etc etc. An interesting idea all in all. I suggest calling them the Good Reads Awards. Sorry – the Costa Coffee Good Reads Awards.

Black Swan Green is one of favourite books of 2006. Scenes from it have come to mind from time to time, and I’ve urged the book on many people (“No, there’s no green swans. It’s the name of a suburb, like Black Swan Ville”). Until this novel I’ve picked up Mitchell’s books but put them quickly down as they sound daunting: narrative here and there, characters in various time periods – all in all a little more work than I wanted this year. But in Black Swan Green Mitchell lets down his hair a bit and tells a reasonably straightforward story of one year in the life of 13 year-old Jason Taylor in grey, glum 1980s Thatcherite England. One of the very best looks at the interior of a young mind since I read Ian McGillis’s Edmonton tale, A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry.

Or as Ron Mitchell put it in the Washington Post Book World:<>
"After the sprawling scope and pyrotechnic style of his Booker Prize-nominated Cloud Atlas,'David Mitchell could have delivered nothing more surprising than this charming, quiet novel about a 13-year-old boy. In 13 connected stories that take place in 1982, young Jason Taylor describes his perilous trek through schoolyard trials, his budding interest in girls and the simmering tension between his parents. Straddling the wonders of childhood and the anxieties of adulthood, he speaks to us in a voice that mingles insight and naivete — not too cute, not too slick. The result is a novel that's alternately nostalgic, funny and heartbreaking.

'It's all ranks, being a boy,' Jason reminds us, 'like the army.' He lives cautiously, always attentive to shifting, unwritten rules about what to wear, how to greet friends, where to sit on the bus, what songs to like. For the young men of this little village in Worcestershire, England, life is governed largely by the dread of being thought gay. 'Mind you,' Jason tells us, 'if they knew Eliot Bolivar, who gets poems published in 'Black Swan Green Parish Magazine,' was me, they'd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone.'

Being a sensitive boy with an interest in literature is fraught with risk ('Books're gay'), but Jason can't help studying everything around him, spinning his own Walter Mitty fantasies of adventure. Although we see only a few lines of his poetry — nothing especially noteworthy — his fresh insight into other people and his raw enthusiasm for the world endow this winding commentary with the joy of little revelations: 'The lake in the woods was epic. Tiny bubbles were trapped in the ice like in Fox's Glacier Mints.'
"Books're gay". Yup, heard that one a few times in my youth. Alas, I don't think things have changed all that much.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home