In comparison Black Swan Green is a much simpler read, but like Cloud Atlas it is concerned with dominance and hegemony – this time in the context of a young boy encountering various threatening aspects of the world around him. Set in 1982 in a small Worcestershire village, this is the story of a 13-year-old, Jason Taylor, dealing with the many terrors of adolescence: a stammering problem that means he has to pre-test each sentence for “danger-words”, a group of bullies at school, the incomprehensibility of the news filtering in from the world beyond the village (including the Falklands War between England and Argentina), and the dark clouds that have started to gather over his parents’ marriage.
Black Swan Green is extremely vivid in its depiction of how lonely and frightening the world can be for a precocious and/or overly sensitive child. Intelligent children are particularly vulnerable, not just to the cruelty of other children but also to that impossible-to-defy power wielded by adults – wherein children, no matter how much they know or how mature they might be at an early age, are expected to stay within well-defined limits, not argue with adults about anything beyond a point (because then it becomes “back-answering”, even if the child is being politely insistent); essentially, “behave like a child”.
There’s a telling little passage early on, where Jason’s mother sweepingly attributes his dislike of sprouts to “adolescent discontent”:
I asked what not liking the taste of sprouts had to do with adolescent discontent. Mum warned me to stop being a Clever Little Schoolboy. I should’ve shut up but I pointed out that dad never makes her eat melon (which she hates) and Mum never makes Dad eat garlic (which he hates). She went ape and sent me to my room. When dad got back I got a lecture about arrogance.(I always find it a bit rich when adults lecture children about arrogance.)
The above passage, and a few others in the book, touched a chord. As a child, when I got interested in certain subjects I would single-mindedly pursue them for months, read as much as possible about them. This resulted in a comprehensive knowledge of those topics (around the time I was 12 the Mahabharata was one, 1930s and 1940s Hollywood was another) and I got a lot of grief if I happened to correct something an adult had said during a discussion on one of those subjects. Initially they would just look through me as if I wasn’t there, or perhaps smile that horrible, patronising, indulgent smile adults employ to let children know how insignificant they are. But if I supplied proof to back what I’d said (lugging across my Leonard Maltin movie guide, for instance, to show an aunt that Kirk Douglas, not Charlton Heston, was in such-and-such film), the mood would shift to one of near-resentment: how could a mere child have the temerity to show up an adult?
Children are expected to believe that adults, simply by virtue of being adults, have a special perspective on the world, which cannot yet be shared or even questioned. But things are usually more complex and uncomfortable than that, and often have more to do with the most primitive of human instincts: the need to dominate, to enjoy someone else’s helplessness.
Mitchell is also very good at showing how intense and concentrated a child’s life can become when things go wrong – how, at such times, it feels like the whole world is conspiring against you, reveling in your humiliation. One of the finest chapters in Black Swan Green has a traumatised Jason counting down the hours to his “public execution” – he has to perform a reading in front of the whole class the next day and he knows the text will be full of stammer-words. (On another occasion, when he fumbles and can’t get a particular word out of his mouth, this is the description: Miss Throckmorton was waiting. Every kid in the classroom was waiting. Every crow and every spider in Black Swan Green was waiting. Every cloud, every car on every motorway, even Mrs Thatcher in the House of Commons had frozen, listening, watching, thinking, What’s wrong with Jason Taylor?)
Reading Black Swan Green made me think about other books or stories I’ve read that have dealt with the disconnection felt by a precocious child or adolescent, or with the fantasy worlds created by children. Here’s a short list, off the top of my head. (Haven’t thought much about this, so would appreciate more inputs.)
- Calvin & Hobbes: No, I’m not trying to take the fun out of Bill Watterson’s great series by subjecting it to over-analysis (though I do occasionally baulk when I hear people say “Calvin is sho shweet” or “such a loveable brat” in that familiar patronising tone). Calvin & Hobbes is, first and foremost, a very enjoyable comic strip. But it doesn’t take too much effort to see the subtext: an extremely smart, lonely kid building fantasy worlds that are much more immediate and compelling than the real world, with its many constraints.
- Two short stories: Saki’s haunting “Sredni Vashtar”, about a terminally ill child named Conradin, his tyrannical guardian who is determined to deny him every little pleasure, and the polecat-ferret Conradin keeps at the back of the garden; and Roald Dahl’s “The Wish”, an incredibly compelling tale about a little boy inventing a game to be played on a colourful carpet in his house: he has to cross over to the other side by avoiding the reds (which represent fiery coals that will “burn him up completely” if he touches them) and the blacks (which are poisonous serpents). Dahl’s great achievement here is to make it completely irrelevant that this is just make-believe; by the end of the story, the dangers of the carpet are as real to the reader as they are to the child.
- L P Hartley’s The Go-Between, about a young boy who becomes a messenger (and a pawn) in the clandestine love affair between a brusque farmer and young noblewoman – with both of whom he has a strong emotional connection.
- The opening paragraphs of Dickens’ Great Expectations; young Pip meeting the escaped convict in the graveyard: “My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard…”
- And oh well, there’s The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar, but is there really anything left to say about those?
I also think of the flashback sequences in Federico Fellini’s film 8 ½, the scenes of Guido’s childhood: the mysterious chant “Asa Nisi Masa”; the scene where Guido and his friends go to meet a prostitute who is depicted as a giant of a woman, threatening and exaggerated in her sexuality (which is how the adult Guido would remember her); the enormous portraits of saints looking down on and berating Guido in his Catholic school – everything made larger than life, more intimidating.
(Will post a Black Swan Green review next week.)