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.