Saturday, July 22, 2006


Title: Black Swan Green
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Sceptre

Black Swan Green is a small village in Worcestershire England. The village where Jason Taylor lives – a schoolboy, who turns 13 in January 1982. The novel Black Swan Green is about Jason Taylor and his life in this village, ranging from January 1982 to January 1983, progressing a chapter-month at a time.

Jason lives with his mum, his dad and his 18-year-old sister. Jason isn’t one of the cool kids at school. School is very hierarchical, he would like to move up the ranks, become one of the cool kids. So he is always keeping an eye on what is going, trying to win points and to not put his foot in it so that he becomes regarded as a loser. It isn’t easy, Jason is a stutterer, and he writes poetry – which is published regularly in the parish magazine, under and assumed name of course – being the only way he can really get his words out.

Over the course of a year many things happen, especially at that age. Jason sees his speech therapist, he starts to notice girls, he starts to notice his parents are arguing a lot, war breaks out in the Falklands, he goes to the annual fair, the school disco. Along the way he is given a few opportunities to really change his life – to get in with the cool kids, to receive feedback on his poetry and most importantly get a better understanding of life and how that doesn’t necessarily mean caring what other people think.

Initially I don’t like Jason. His incessant attempts to get in with the cool kids are sickening. Especially as even at that age I could have told you that those supposed cool kids are clearly bullies and idiots. Eventually though even Jason starts to get an idea of how people really work, even if does come about the hard way. His family all grate, but part of this is the undercurrents of tension, which like Jason’s view point of the world change as the novel progresses so that we get a better idea of why certain things happen.

Since the novel is set in 1982 it has a very retro feel. Lots of references to Thatcher and the mood of the nation of the time. Of course having been sufficiently younger than the character and being part of a different nation my thoughts on the period are somewhat different. Though again its funny how events within the family change Jason’s outlook on the times.

Black Swan Green is David Mitchell’s fourth book. Note the use of the word book, it could easily be suggested that this is his first novel, at a push his second. His debut, Ghostwritten, was a series of stories, each with connections to those before and after. That was followed by Number9Dream, which is allegedly a novel in that each chapter has part of the “overall” story, though like Ghostwritten each piece has an individual gimmick at work. Of course it was Cloud Atlas that really made Mitchell’s name, a highly acclaimed work – which was essentially six interleaved novellas, taking the idea of Ghostwritten to a new level.

So with that, Black Swan Green is Mitchell’s first novel. The first novel that works as a real novel, and is entirely gimmick free (well, more or less). Though there was a point where I read the description of this book and thought he was going to pull another Number9Dream. Of course, it is then ironic, that his most coherent and solid work is also his least coherent and weakest work. Each chapter is a month, and each month Mitchell focuses on one event/aspect of Taylor’s life – to a degree fulfilling the short story expectation. But because this is novel and not a collection of shorts, however interleaved, each chapter ends up feeling too fragmentary – as though we really aren’t getting as much of the picture as we should do. As the novel progresses themes and fragments are picked up, and if you wanted you could probably connect each chapter to the one before and the one after in a typically Mitchell fashion.

Through his previous works Mitchell has had various elements of the fantastic, little glints of wonder that have made his books a kind of magic realism, slipstream, whatever. Black Swan Green strips all that away, presenting one of the most mundane novels I have read in a while. Even in literary terms another retro novel about a kid in the 80 coming to terms is not what you call startlingly original. Along with my initial negative reactions to the characters, I just didn’t really feel encouraged that this was going to really live up to Mitchell’s past work. And it never really does - while it does pick up, while it does get more interesting, while I start to like the character more – this is Mitchell’s least interesting book to date. With that, it is perhaps sad that the bits I enjoyed most were the inevitable connections to his other novels – in the same way that Cloud Atlas has a character from Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green has a character from Cloud Atlas, and then even has Taylor listening to John Lennon’s Number9Dream.

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