I just finished Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas—which was a Man Booker Prize finalist—and Number9Dream among others). It’s a coming of age story, recounting one year in the life of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, who lives in a small village—Black Swan Green—in Worcestershire in 1982. Cold War England.
I came away from the novel feeling that Jason’s character and voice were pitch perfect in representing the life and experiences of a sensitive and aware thirteen-year-old. Yet when a reviewer on Goodreads said that Mitchell needed to decide whether the narrator was a thirteen-year-old boy or a 35 year-old man—that Jason was too eloquent and insightful for a thirteen-year-old—I said, “Yes, that’s true.”
Not to whether Mitchell needed to make a choice, but to the complicated phenomenon of Jason being in some ways both a boy and a man—and perhaps that is exactly what enables so many readers (not just me) to experience him as being so authentic.
One could argue that Jason isn’t so precocious as to be unbelievable as a boy. He’s a sensitive, observant kid whose sensibilities have been developed and refined due to his experiences of being “outside” (and bullied) as a stutterer. A kid whose command of metaphor as a poet will not only allow him to be an eloquent narrator, but be more perceptive about his experiences.
But I agree with the reviewer in that Jason’s precocity goes beyond mere precocity. There is a maturity that only accumulated experience in the passing of many years gives, a maturity that (re)contextualizes experience into an ever-enlarging and (one hopes) inclusive web of meaning that isn’t available to a thirteen year-old.
Yet it is exactly the use of that web that can “fill out” a teenaged experience and make it even more authentic for the reader. It functions as the larger world within which a teenaged viewpoint roams. In Black Swan Green, Jason’s world is fuller and placed within a context that is able to make more meaning both to his own experience (and teenaged experience in general) and the time period within which he lives.
Black Swan Green is semi-autobiographical. Perhaps that is why Jason feels so adolescently real and yet mature beyond his years. His life has already been set into the context of a grown man looking backwards. Memories are always already set in a wider world of experience that can’t simply be dumped when one looks back or re-imagines the past.
But the restraints and possibilities of memory and experience are precisely what every writer must negotiate no matter what her genre, and its effect will linger even if she feels she should purge its particularity. So maybe it’s not a matter of choosing to offer a “pure” experience in the quest to write a much younger voice, but a matter of embracing and embodying one’s own self more fully as one writes.