Black Swan Green: A Novel
by David Mitchell
A review by Claire Messud
Fans of David Mitchell's challenging and complex fiction will be surprised,
perhaps, by the comparatively small scale and straightforward narrative of his
new novel, Black Swan Green, which follows on the heels of his wildly acclaimed
That novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is made up of six interwoven narratives
spanning centuries and continents, from the mid-1800s to a distant post-apocalyptic
future in Hawaii. Each vibrant voice and story is radically different, and at
first apparently unrelated; their connections only unfold over the course of hundreds
of pages. Now reading Black Swan Green, a closely observed first-person
account of adolescence in provincial England in the early 1980s, you have the
impression of encountering a minutely rendered watercolor landscape by Jackson
Pollock: the amazement of recognizing that the author's considerable talents
can extend to this, also. For those who haven't yet read Mitchell's
work, this funny, poignant story of a tumultuous year at a difficult age is simply
a pleasure in itself.
Jason Taylor is 13, living in a small town in Worcestershire in 1982. His father
is an executive at a frozen-food chain, Greenland, and his mother a discontented
housewife pining for a rockery in the garden of her cul-de-sac home, a woman
who has reason to doubt her husband's fidelity. Jason's older sister Julia is
preparing to go to university to study law and navigates her social scene with
enviable aplomb, while young Jason, timid and with a significant speech impediment,
struggles to stay afloat in the brutal hierarchy of teenage boys. As he explains,
"Kids who're really popular get called by their first names, so Nick Yew's always
just 'Nick.' Kids who're a bit popular like Gilbert Swinyard have sort of respectful
nicknames like Yardy.' Next down are kids like me who call each other
by our surnames. Below us are kids with piss-take names like Moran Moron or
Nicholas Briar, who's Knickerless Bra. It's all ranks, being a boy, like the
Over the course of a year, as his family slowly disintegrates, Jason climbs
the social ladder, then falls, then climbs again. His sense of humor (he calls
his stammer "Hangman," and the voice of his more daring self his "Unborn
Twin"), combined with his vivid gift for observation (as the author of
poems locally published under the name "Eliot Bolivar"), creates from
simple and known outlines an idiosyncratic and engaging tale.
The book comprises 13 chapters that span a year and go full circle (the last
chapter, "January Man," has the same title as the first). Each is
episodic and largely discrete, and there is a delicately handled tension over
the course of the book between the picaresque aimlessness of adolescence and
a broader novelistic movement. Much is universal not simply the agonizing
hierarchies among children, but also a shy boy's pointless lust for a popular
girl, his envy of his handsome cousin, his eagerness to be close to his parents
along with his need to distance himself (publicly) from them, and, of course,
his first cigarette, his secret-society initiation, his first kiss. The book
echoes, both explicitly and implicitly, many that have come before: Part Goscinny
Petit Nicolas, part Henri Alain-Fournier's Le
Grand Meaulnes (which Jason at one point reads with great eagerness), part
John Hughes movie, Black Swan Green cheerfully embraces the central conventions
of its protagonist's awkward age.
But David Mitchell is too canny a writer for the novel to be simply and straightforwardly
itself. It not only refers to Le Grand Meaulnes, but, in Jason's
mysterious encounter with an old lady in a mysterious house in the woods ("There's
only one house in the woods so that's what we call it, the House in the
Woods"), it also enacts his yearning for a Meaulnes-like romance and grandeur.
One chapter, "Bridle Path," is a near-surreal picaresque, in which
Jason encounters nearly all the stock tests of manhood in a single day: He is
party to a fight; he is toyed with by the girl he fancies; he witnesses from
up a tree two older kids having sex (this is one of the best and funniest descriptions
of sex I've ever read, including the line "Now she made a noise like
a tortured Moomintroll"); he encounters a stranger in the woods; and, fleeing
him, stumbles upon lunatics in the garden of the asylum. (This, again, is an
ironic echo of Alain-Fournier's classic, in which Meaulnes stumbles, in
the woods, upon a grand manor in which a fairy-tale wedding is taking place.)
Somehow, in the chapter "Knife Grinder," Black Swan Green is overrun
with Gypsies, a further unexpected digression into a boy's romantic fantasies.
In another, "Solarium," Mitchell allows himself the diversion of introducing
a character from Cloud Atlas, the formidable and unlikely (certainly in Worcestershire)
Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, "an old toady lady" to Jason's
eyes, whose "knuckles were ridged as Toblerone."
Mitchell's wit and technical facility are such that he can dance from
allusion to allusion without seeming heavy-handed. Black Swan Green is
at once familiar and strange, on many levels. Both Jason and his creator are
deliciously playful. Part of this is attributable to Mitchell's abandon
in language, to the freshness of his diction. Sometimes it strains a little
("An ambulance siren's wail bagatelled through the bare wood,"
or "The old lady's rivery eyeballs chased the words across the pages"),
but for the most part, Jason's voice is completely convincing: "The
idea of any boy snogging my sister makes me grab the vomit bucket but quite
a few sixth formers fancy her. I bet Ewan's one of these super-confident
kids who wears Blue Stratos aftershave and winkle-picker shoes and a wedge like
the man from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark."
The minutiae of the period (as exemplified above) are also wonderfully caught.
For those of us old enough to remember that time, it is given its particular
local flavor (the Falklands War looms large in this young British boy's
year), but Mitchell vividly re-creates all the details of a historical moment
that, coming on the heels of the flamboyant '70s and before the rather
different flamboyance of the later '80s, is largely forgotten; and in so
doing he adds another layer of pleasure to the text.
Any brief description of Black Swan Green would suggest to you that
you've already read it: Nerdy teenage boy has social trouble while his
parents' marriage founders; becomes suddenly popular and kisses girl at
end. And, of course, David Mitchell is fully and amusedly aware that you already
have. But he follows Pound's exhortation to "make it new": You've
read it before, and then again, you haven't read it quite like this. Jason
Taylor is a classic, stammer and all.
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