‘Black Swan Green’ by David Mitchell

BlackSwanGreen

Fiction – hardcover; Random House; 294 pages; 2006.

It’s 1982. Duran Duran are the band of the moment, Margaret Thatcher is in power and the Falklands War is in full swing.

Jason Taylor, who lives in a small Worcestershire village called Black Swan Green, is 13 years old. When he’s not at home with his squabbling parents and an older sister who wants to leave him in the lurch by fleeing to university as soon as she can, he’s at school fending off the bullies who pick on his stuttering and lack of sporting ability. Desperate to belong, he hides several guilty secrets, including a burning desire to be a poet, and muddles through a year in which his parent’s marriage disintegrates around him.

While Black Swan Green is not strictly a coming-of-age story, Jason Taylor does grow and change over the course of the 13 months in which the story is set. He loses his naivety and bolsters his poor self esteem by learning to stand up against those who bully him.

Coupled with the war against Argentina (in which a local boy is killed) and his parent’s impending separation, he learns that the world is a much bigger, maybe darker, place than Black Swan Green.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I got totally immersed in it and hungrily devoured every page in the space of a wet, windy weekend.

I loved the references to my own childhood (I am the same age as David Mitchell) and despite growing up on the opposite side of the planet couldn’t believe the similarities between a 13-year-old living in a little village in England and a 13-year-old living in a little village in Australia. I got a lot of chuckles from reminders of things I’d long forgotten, such as the excitement of buying a “TDK C-60 cassette to tape songs off the radio”!

But I have my doubts as to whether this attention to nostalgic detail will be appreciated by readers who were not young teenagers at the time in which this book is set.

Despite Mitchell’s ability to write beautifully — my favourite lines include: “Lyme Regis was a casserole of tourists. Everywhere smelt of suntan oil, hamburgers and burnt sugar” (page 161); “A sick bus growled past and made the air smell of pencils” (page 195); and “Grimy windows rectangled misty gloom. The exact colour of boredom” (page 207) — I’m not entirely convinced that his talent can paper over the fact that the book lacks a sustained plot.

Essentially Black Swan Green is a mood piece, a beautiful, atmospheric and evocative mood piece, but a mood piece nonetheless. Each chapter is a self-sustained short story in its own right, and there’s nothing really tying them all together, apart from the voice of the narrator. Characters mentioned in one chapter disappear only to reappear unexpectedly several chapters later on. This annoyed me, because the narrative is linear, and most linear narratives don’t treat characters as if they can be turned on and off like a switch.

Still, this is just a minor irritation and I wouldn’t let this put you off reading this wonderfully entertaining and highly evocative novel.

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14 thoughts on “‘Black Swan Green’ by David Mitchell

  1. The lines you quote are interesting, because they illustrate what Mitchell is trying to do here: use near-trite metaphors to illustrate the mind of an adolescent writer, who can’t have learned yet to distinguish between the banal and the effective. They’re not beautifully written, nor are they meant to be. The question for me, however, is whether this is a successful technique. I’m not the only one who isn’t completely convinced by Jason’s voice.

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  2. Perfect! Tuned into BBC Radio 4 today and “Book At Bedtime” is also reading “Black Swan Green”. Will read with them until I can get my own copy. Thanks for the review.

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  3. Lee, I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder because I really do think he writes beautifully. The idea that the bus fumes could smell like pencil especially resonated with me, but maybe that’s because I’m often cycling behind London red buses that belch all kinds of revolting smells! I also loved that Mitchell could describe a seaside town as a “casserole of tourists” because that’s EXACTLY what places like Lyme Regis are like in summer.
    Lotus, let me know whether you liked the book or not once you’ve heard it/read it Would be interested in finding out your opinion.

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  4. Kim, I think we’re talking at cross-purposes. I did not mean to imply that Mitchell never writes beautifully, only that he’s using metaphor in a very different way here – as a technique of character development.

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  5. Kim — I’m so pleased that you’ve now read it & your post on BSG was a delight. I find that there is ire all over the place when it comes to BSG because so many fans of Mitchell’s work expect fantastic twists and turns. This is a quiet book that doesn’t necessarily work on all the levels it’s trying to. That’s what I loved about it.
    I think its important to remember, too, that every reader is different. I can read ANYTHING that has beautiful sentences, language & imagery…even if the plot goes nowhere and nothing else holds together particularly well. But that’s just me. Since much of Mitchell’s work (I would even argue, ALL of his work until BSG) has held together in terms of plot and narrative structure so well — Black Swan Green has been a bitter pill to swallow for some fans.
    I wonder what the reaction to this book would have been like had it been his first. Or someone else’s altogether, without so much expectation of structure & symmetry placed upon it before the cover was cracked open. It seems there was a particular idea Mitchell fans had of what they wanted to see, and only what they wanted to see.
    I recently saw a film about the artist Robert Rauschenberg at an opening for his show here in LA. In the film, a painter perfectly described this state of what an artist’s goal really vs. what an artist’s audience sometimes expects/demands. He said that his job as an artist was to go on a journey to uncharted territories…places he had not yet been and had not yet taken his audience. He then very clearly stated what the artist’s job is NOT: “I’m not here to be a regular ferry service that always leaves for the same known destination, time and again, like clockwork.” I think this is spot on — particularly in terms of reader expectations of a writer’s work they admire. It seems we aren’t willing to let the writer take us elsewhere, especially if we like where they took us last time. We’d rather just go back.

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  6. Lee, sorry, yes, get what you mean now!
    Callie, thanks for your great comment (and for sending me the book!) I agree with everything you say. Given that I have never read a Mitchell book before I had nothing to compare it to and so I just took it on face value – without prejudice if you like. I think much of what you says applies to music, too. I am a big music fan and I hate it when band’s don’t progress, when they keep churning out the same stuff album after album. It gets boring and monotonous after awhile. And yet, by the same token, sometimes it’s nice to know that some bands refuse to change – in that way there are no nasty surprises when you buy a new album.
    In fact, if I think about this in a book context, there are some authors I rely on as old faithfuls – Nicci French and Maeve Binchy spring to mind. I know exactly what I’m getting when I read one of their books…but then I don’t think those authors have any grand literary allusions.

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  7. I took a risk and bought Black Swan Green last night. I was unable to get into Cloud Atlas and hope the same thing doesn’t happen with BSG.
    For some reason, I am finding so many highly-praised books unreadable. For example, I got all of Pamuk’s books out of the library and was unable to finish one of them, actually I couldn’t read more than 50 pages into any of them.

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  8. The real village where david Mitchell grow up in worcestershire is called Hanley Swan. A pleasant enough little village. I should know as i was born and grew up there at the same time as David. As i’m 3 years older than him i recall many of the places and incidents he talks about. Especially the incident where he meets the farmers dogs. I saw the village from a slightly different light though. Outsiders such as Davids family were never going to be accepted, it’s not a personal thing it was the way villages were back then. The close where david lived was seen as a very posh part of the village and kids from there tended to bear the brunt of the japes and jokes when coming home from the local school. David tended to sit quietly at the back of the bus and take this with good humour.
    anyway, i’m off to get some nice sharp stones to throw at the outsiders.
    M

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  9. This book fails my “would I recommend this to a friend” test. There is nothing much wrong with it, it jogs along happily and is a pleasant read. Unfortunately, I found it all rather pointless, and as someone earlier mentioned, the narrative is a bit disjointed. I think some of the chapters were originally written as short stories. So I’m still waiting for a worthy successor to “Cloud Atlas”.

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  10. “Characters mentioned in one chapter disappear only to reappear unexpectedly several chapters later on. This annoyed me, because the narrative is linear, and most linear narratives don’t treat characters as if they can be turned on and off like a switch.”
    Maybe you should look at it in the bigger picture of Mitchell’s work: all characters seem to be part of a universe that the author created and they pop up in several books. I kind of like that!

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