This is a book that... piece by Charles Cave.
Franz Kafka once said “A book must be the axe which smashes the frozen sea within us.” I fell in love with these words as a teenager, but it was not until I was in my early twenties that I understood them, lounging on the trampoline out the back of my share house in Bondi. I turned the last pages of David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, and I felt the ice crack.
I was six when my parents divorced. Mum said we were going on a three-week holiday to Australia. We left England, my father, my grandparents, and never returned. It took months for me to realise we weren't going back: kids have no concept of time passing. I was already at school by then, settled into Sydney life: the sunstruck harbour, excursions to the Australian museum to see the stuffed Tassie devils and dinosaur skeletons. Down at Circular Quay, the Bicentennial was on; face-painted crowds laughing and waving flags. Someone handed out lapel pins in the shape of Australia, face masks of the Queen.
I don't remember grieving for the life we left behind in England. I don't remember missing Dad, or even noticing that he wasn't there, those first weeks. He worked a lot, we rarely saw him anyway. Mum was happier now. The sun was everywhere. What I remember is the feeling of dislocation, of being out of control: that the fundamental, stabilising pillars of my world had crumbled. I remember not knowing if I could trust anybody, or anything, to stay put. A feeling that never really left me.
The narrator of Black Swan Green, Jason Taylor, is thirteen and lives with his parents and sister in one of those boxy little estates South England does so well. It is 1982. He writes poetry under the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar, but he's not a poet. He has a stammer, which he has personified as “Hangman”. He doesn't introduce himself so much as seize the reader by the jugular and refuse to let go. “Lunch at 9 Kingfisher Meadows, Black Swan Green, Worcestershire, was Findus ham'n'cheese, Crispy Pancakes, crinkle-cut oven chips and sprouts,” he reports, itemising many meals of my childhood. “Sprouts taste of fresh puke but Mum said I had to eat five without making a song and dance about it, or there'd be no butterscotch Angel Delight for pudding.”
I found the book in the Bondi St Vinnies, battered and forlorn, but in good nick. I'd liked Mitchell's other one, or two: Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, these were exciting and technically inventive and I expected more of the same. It was not the same. Black Swan Green articulated my childhood, right down to the dreariness of middle-class English life.
Jason's dad has an answering machine. My dad had an answering machine. I would call from Australia, leave messages which went: “Dear Dad. It's me. I hope you are going well. Please give us a call back when you have time. Thank you, love from Charles.” I imagined a tiny man sitting inside the machine, carefully transcribing my words, and printing them on paper for Dad to read, like a fax.
The misfit, Jason, could have been me. He writes poetry, when everyone else at school wants to play football. He stalks around the countryside, muddy from falling off a sty, careful to avoid brambles. He sits at table with his family, isolated, while they snipe at each other. And his yearning, his angst, his pain, were mine. But there was more. Black Swan Green is a story, not just of Jason's adolescent trials, but also of his parents' divorce. Their break-up rarely penetrates his teenage musings, and Jason himself is barely aware of it, much of the time. But the fallout of the crumbling relationship is all around him.
The revelation, on that trampoline, was not that I identified with Jason. It was that I empathised with the adults in his life. The way his mother and father tried to protect him, but let their own egos and pain get in the way, because they are fallible, and skate on their own ice which threatens to crack.
I had always thought my parents' divorce was the defining time in my life; that it had taken my childhood, my faith in love. I had been irrevocably changed by it and had always thought that if they had just tried, maybe they could have made it work. I'd always thought my mother had turned and run, with little provocation; that my father had been too stubborn and vindictive in the aftermath to allow her attempts at conciliation. But the parental relationship in Black Swan Green is rendered differently. There is no apportioning of blame here. Everyone is in the wrong, and everyone is sympathetic, and everyone is getting hurt.
In the climactic scene, in a classroom, Jason makes a speech where all the strands of the story come together, braided tight. He issues his final statement – the perfect “drop-mic” moment – and looks up. “That appalled silence was my handiwork,” he thinks. “Words made it. Just words.”
When I put down the book, that first time, and every time I have read it since, I wanted to call my dad, and I wanted to call my mum. I wanted to give them the book and say, “Here. Read this. It's about a marriage failing under the weight of the tide, it's about people getting hurt no matter how hard their parents try to protect them. It's about how divorce ruins kids' lives, but it's also about how it isn't always avoidable, and how people can rebuild afterwards. Read it, and know that I understand.” I have never given them the book to read, but the book has made me feel closer to them. And it was words that did it. Just words.
Charles is a writer and editor from Sydney, whose essays and short fiction have appeared in Bread Wine & Thou, Ampersand, the Rag and Bone Man Salon, and others. Charles likes black coffee, neat whiskey, noir theatre and the moment the lights go down in the cinema.