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Growing up in a typical British household, in a small Scottish town, there are many aspects of both Iain Banks’ Stonemouth (2012) and David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (2006) which I can relate to. The former features a young 20-something exile named Stewart Gilmour returning to the scene of his shame to confront the skeletons in his closet. Meanwhile, the latter details the daily tortures of a 13-year-old youth called Jason Taylor who suffers from a debilitating stammer which often makes him a figure of ridicule in the dog-eat-dog world of high school.
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Both of these novels concern young male protagonists attempting to come to terms with their blossoming manhood and all of the responsibilities that entails. While in Stonemouth Stewart has already reached adulthood and has to try and atone for past sins, Jason is still an innocent and somewhat naïve stripling who tries to avoid transgressing and make sense of the transgressions of those around him.
Crucial to both novels, as well, is the setting. Both are named for the small town in which they take place, which serves as a melting pot for gossip, scandal and judgement. When everybody knows the business of everybody else, there are very few secrets… which can have devastating consequences for those who attempt to keep them.
“…Every movement is watched, discussed, judged and condemned…”
“…Every movement is watched, discussed, judged and condemned…”
While Stewart’s jurors are at once more mature and more violent, Jason’s are no less ruthless in their discriminatory attitude towards his actions and they affect his life just as drastically as Stewart’s. Indeed, acts of sexual discretion in both novels lead to the protagonists bidding farewell to the small town of the title – although of course, in the case of Stonemouth, this has happened prior to the commencement of the novel. Ultimately though, it is the small-town attitude which drives the direction of both novels and the plots of both hinge on the setting.
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Having said that, the novels remain very different. The manner in which Stonemouth is narrated cloaks the actuality of Stewart’s transgression in a mystery until much later on in the book, making this enigmatic aspect of it the real catalyst for the action. While both novels are Bildungsromans, Stonemouth also takes on more of a mystery-thriller feel than Black Swan Green.
Furthermore, the fictional Scottish township of Stonemouth is a much more worldly-wise (to put it in polite terms) backdrop than the sleepy and benign hamlet of Black Swan Green. The fact that the town is controlled by two rival gangs adds a sinister undertone to the storyline and an impetus to the mystery aspect, since Stewart’s life is genuinely in the balance at several points throughout the novel.
On the other hand, Black Swan Green is lower-adrenalin and more middle-of-the-road. The schoolroom scandals and bedroom affairs are all compelling in their own right, but not as outlandish or extreme as Stewart’s run-ins with the Murstons. Rather than relying on a “whodunit” (and “what-was-it-they-done”) property to impel the action, Black Swan Green follows the very believable reflections of a 13-year-old as he tries to comes to terms with his own developing body, the opinions and actions of those around him, home strife, issues of honesty and loyalty and larger themes such as death, politics and war.
In fact, David Mitchell has even admitted that Black Swan Green is semi-autobiographical; the stammer which plagues Jason’s speech is a demon from his own youth which he exorcises via the novel. In his own words:
“I’d probably still be avoiding the subject today had I not outed myself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, narrated by a stammering 13-year-old.”
While Iain Banks undoubtedly draws on his own experience in writing all of his novels, I suspect it’s unlikely that the tribal rivalry of Stonemouth is a real facet of his own upbringing. Because of this, Black Swan Green appears to me to have a deeper honesty and profundity than Stonemouth.
This sense of honesty (or at least, perceived honesty) breeds a more meaningful message into Black Swan Green, for me. While Stonemouth is a fast-paced mystery delving into the past romances and wrongdoings of one repentant man, it has very little to say of great weight. Perhaps there are some vague messages about the importance of loyalty – not only in relationships, but in all aspects of life – but any didactic truths are mostly lost amidst the maelstrom of thugs and ruffians.
Black Swan Green, on the other hand, demonstrates the journey of a boy going through his most formative years. He deals with his first experiences of romance and victimisation, as well as facing important questions about honesty and integrity. The subplot of his family troubles adds a further layer of commentary on the state of human relationships and how our actions can affect (and be affected) by all of those around us. It even has time to dabble in the muddied waters of the Falklands war, commenting subtly on British foreign policy during that particular conflict through the character of Tom Yew.
Because of all of these reasons, I find Black Swan Green to be a more thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding read. On a side note, Mitchell’s decision to include characters from other books of his adds something of an Easter egg incentive for avid readers of his work to join the dots between his literary body and take away an even deeper enjoyment.
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