on July 16, 2006
Some look back on their early adolescence with nostalgia, while others would rather forget the awkward stops and starts along the bumpy road where we begin as children and end as adults. Jason Taylor, narrator of David Mitchell's newest novel, reveals a life that is the source of both; he is a thirteen-year-old would-be poet navigating through one tragi-comic year in his young life. Each of the thirteen chapters in the novel chronicles a different month, and each features those moments in childhood that we believe at the time will mark (or scar) us forever. In Jason, Mitchell has conjured one of the most memorable and real narrators in literature; he reflects on girls, his parents' distintigrating marriage, the cruel initiations of adolescence, or the Falkland wars with equal pathos.
Black Swan Green takes place in a small English countryside town in 1982, and the book is flavored with Thatcher politics, British vernacular , and early 80's pop music. Unlike Mitchell's earlier novels, Black Swan Green is in many ways a novel about the pains and pleasures of the ordinary, and Jason scrutinizes the everyday with as much perception as major life events. Thirteen is an age where an embarrassment at school or a fight with one's parents takes on epic proportions, and yet time passes in such a way that last month's tragedies seem to fade into the distant past. Mitchell conjures this sense with such ease that Jason is a completely believable character, even as his thoughts reveal a remarkable sophistication.
In Cloud Atlas, Mitchell showed himself to be a master of the narrative voice, and in Black Swan Green he exceeds all expectations. Instead of writing what could have been an angst-ridden, self-fixated modern Holden Caulfield, Mitchell brings Jason out of himself with a well-rendered cast of supporting characters: his distant, workaholic father and his acidic mother, the merciless bullies at school, his fellow outcast friends, and various colorful townsfolk. Just as significant but more subtle are the internal characters that populate Jason's mind, including Unborn Twin (the voice of self-deprecation and fear) and his omnipresent arch-nemesis, the Hangman. Hangman is the embodiment of Jason's stammer, a speech impediment that often leaves "s" words frozen on his tongue.
I honestly cannot say enough positive things about this book; Mitchell's writing is gorgeous, Jason's insights at turns comic and heartbreaking. Black Swan Green is perhaps Mitchell's most autobiographic, and it certainly feels like the most grounded of his novels. Beware of the seeming simplicity - this book is neither ordinary nor typical. Rather than produce another quaint coming of age tale, Mitchell delivers a subtle and masterful rendering of an age that is nearly impossible to capture.
~ Jacquelyn Gill
on May 11, 2006
Man Booker Prize finalist David Mitchell's books have been praised for their complex themes and their out-of-the-box approach to storytelling. To read and understand one of his books is to feel as though you're taking apart and putting back together pieces of a puzzle in order to grasp a larger whole. Unlike his previous, more experimental novels (GHOSTWRITTEN, NUMBER9DREAM, CLOUD ATLAS), Mitchell's latest offering is more conventional and probably his most plot-driven to date --- except for the fact that nothing really happens. Nothing, that is, until after you've turned the last page. Months later, the novel's protagonist is still nestled comfortably in your brain and in your heart like a close friend who has moved away or a bittersweet memory leftover from childhood, still resonant with meaning.
BLACK SWAN GREEN chronicles thirteen months in the life of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor --- each one of the thirteen chapters mirrors each of the thirteen months during the time in which the novel takes place --- told from his perspective and at his own meandering pace. Jason, his older sister Julie, and his parents inhabit the posh countryside of Black Swan Green, a slumbering village in South Worcestershire, England. The year is 1982 and England is entrenched in both the Cold War and the short-lived war over the Falklands. Life is fairly ordinary in the small town, aside from the occasional news reel intrusion, and so are the events that transpire throughout the course of the book.
What makes this book so captivating to read is precisely the simplicity of what's being described --- mainly, Jason's transition from adolescence into semi-adulthood. Over the course of thirteen months, he goes from being an awkward, prepubescent young boy with a pesky stammering problem to a soon-to-be young man with a backbone and a bit of experience under his belt. In the beginning, he is seen as an outcast, a weakling, a scab, and is relentlessly made fun of by his stronger, tougher peers. By the end, he has learned how to stand up for himself and has earned the respect not only of some of his tormentors, but of a certain young lady as well.
Although many will find the pleasure in witnessing Jason's ongoing mental and physical maturation process as familiar as watching that of any young person, what stands out as unique is the progression of his own particular self-awareness and the purity of his heart.
He is almost too creative and genuine for his own good (hence why he is constantly being picked on), yet completely unaware of his talents --- a rare occurrence in a boy that age. As a contrast to his gawky exterior, the way he expresses himself internally is downright poetic ("Listening to houses breathe makes you weightless"), and the steadfast earnestness with which he approaches life, albeit at an adolescent level, is incredibly humbling.
Over the course of thirteen chapters, Mitchell mixes just the right combination of insecurity, indignation and yearning to produce a series of vignettes, some of which are too precious to forget. His description in "Bridle Path" of Jason's day on his own while his family is away, first as the master of his house (putting his mother's mousse in his hair and drawing an Adam Ant stripe across his face; eating McVitie's Jamaican Ginger Cake and drinking a milk, coke, Ovaltine milkshake for breakfast; and listening to his sister's records at full volume), then as the brave explorer of the woods surrounding his home, is delightfully endearing and perfectly captures the spirit of what it's like to be young and carefree. In "Spooks," the description of Jason's initiation into a revered and secret club could have been lifted straight out of a young boy's journal, for all its excited eagerness, and the story of his first kiss in "Disco" is so full of nervous energy and longing that some readers might feel the urge to look away so as not to disturb the beauty of the moment.
The only event that may come as a shock is the very real nature of Jason's parents' failing marriage towards the end of the novel and the events that transpire following its collapse. But, in the wise words of now fourteen-year-old-Jason, "The world's a headmaster who works on your faults...you'll keep tripping over a hidden step, over and over, till you finally understand: Watch out for that step! Everything that's wrong with us...that's a hidden step. Either you suffer the consequences of not noticing your fault forever or, one day, you do notice it, and fix it. Joke is...There are always more."
BLACK SWAN GREEN is a true gem that seeps in at a snail's pace --- to be read and cherished for its wit, quiet and empathetic insights, and far-reaching appeal.
--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling
on September 5, 2006
Black Swan Green is a novel about a thirteen-yr-old English boy right on the brink of family turmoil, girls who flirt with you and then shove you off their tractor, the popularity game, and older sisters you don't realize how much you love until they leave home. However, it's not a book just for the guys. It's actually pretty entertaining from a female point of view. It's a window into the trials and tribulations of male puberty and with all of the scenarios that happen in the book, you see exactly how much life can sort of happen to you all at once, no matter your age or what you are going through personally.
I can honestly say that reading Black Swan Green was fun. Honest to God, FUN! It's a really hard book to put down once you get into the story line and the way the chapters end always leaves you wanting to read on. Being that I am a teenager myself, following Jason along for this year of his life was interesting, amusing, and even thought-provoking because Jason's was a life that was far different from my own, but one I could get into just from reading the book. You really feel like you know Jason, you feel bad for his stammer, you want everyone to know how good a poet he is as Bolivar, and you root for him in all aspects. I even enjoyed the way the book was written, like how Jason explains the hangman who only troubles him with certain words that start with certain words on certain days. The book on a whole has great imagery and such vivid descriptions that it's not hard to feel the cold weather of England, or the heat that surely rushes to Jason's face out of embarrassment when he has to say things in front of the class.
Overall, I recommend this book highly. The chronology is a little difficult to grasp at first, but you get around to putting the pieces together just in time. I had to read this for school but i'm glad to own it and will probably read it again in the future when i'm just in the mood for a good book.
on July 8, 2007
The writing is fantastic. There's a scene where Jason's teacher sends him to on an errand to retrieve a whistle that's on top of a stack of photocopies of this text. I wish I'd gotten a copy when I was going through adolescence.
"Contrary to popular wisdom, bullies are rarely cowards.
Bullies come in various shapes and sizes. Observe yours. Gather intelligence.
Shunning one hopeless battle is not an act of cowardice.
Hankering for security or popularity makes you weak and vulnerable.
Which is worse? Scorn earnt by informers? Misery earnt by victims?
The brutal may have been moulded by a brutality you cannot exceed. Let guile be your ally.
Respect earnt by integrity cannot be lost without your consent.
Don't laugh at what you don't find funny. Don't support an opinion you don't hold.
The independent befriend the independent.
Adolescence dies in its fourth year. You live to be eighty."
David Mitchell, Black Swan Green.
on April 16, 2006
'Black swan green' has been descirbed as a simple touching tale i.e. it's more traditional in comparison with the brilliant cloud atlas, something the average might be more comfortable with. However if you look more closely the book is still very different for the genre.For a start it's divided into 13 tales which interlock rather than just being a story with one overarching narrative. Also the tales themselves have often slightly different feels .For example, the first story in the novel 'January man' feels more gothic horror or dickensian ghost story, as opposed to 'solarium' which uses a character from the robert frobisher section of cloud atlas and feels more early twentieth century french . However at no time does the reader feel that the tales don't belong together , something that requires quite considerable literary skill (which mitchell clearly possesses in spades)The other interesting thing is the age of the boy ..he's 13 .Usually these kind of tales feature boys of 16- 18 . By choosing this odd age, mitchell is able to investigate the twlight world of childhood which is beginning to be infused with sexual feeling. Consequently the novel feels fresher than a coming of age novel for example.
Anyway its genius, genuinely moving at points with real heart and something i can imagine readers of all ages loving .Superb.
on September 5, 2006
Black Swan Green was a very insightful novel with honest portrayals of its characters and their situations. It follows a 13-year-old boy named Jason through one year in his life and shows how he deals with those around him, how they influence him and how he chooses to portray himself to them. He is a closeted poet, who writes using the pen name Elliot Bolivar and enjoys poetry because it is the best way that he thinks there is to express himself. While this is a common reason that many people turn to the multi-expressive and multi-meaningfulness of poetry, it is especially important for Jason, because he suffers constantly with his spoken words because he has a stammer.
At first I thought that this book was hard to understand because, being an American, I only speak American English and had a hard time with British slang that make up Jason's everyday vocabulary. And while this was difficult in the beginning, soon I was speaking his language and understanding words like snogging (kissing) and pongs (smells). By using these distinct words, Mitchell really pulled me into the mind of a thirteen-year-old British boy to the point where I felt like I knew him completely and was completely shocked when he could do something a little out of character.
Jason is a very likable character from the start because he is the underdog. He is constantly conscious of his stammer, he takes mental notes of what the `hard' kids say and do, he lives in the shadow of his older sister and he is always trying to live up to what a normal thirteen-year-old boy is supposed to be. But he is also very smart. He understands the complex relationships that circle around him, from his pre-divorced parents to the rivalries among the other boys. He understands the various hierarchies that he lives in and the ways in which other people climb them and fall down them. With such a comprehensive grasp of his world, it is all the more interesting that he is so clueless about his own role in it and even more importantly who that character is. So yes, it is a coming of age story, but not just for Jason. Mitchell uses this book and Jason's coming of age to question whether people really do "come of age," and what the means for every person. With every chapter comes a new story, but they are all strung together by Jason's hilarious humor, witty commentary, comprehensive insight and honest reactions, which makes this book an awesome choice for anyone who want to be a teenager again and see how really hard it was or is.
I should probably start with a confession: I am in the minority of people who didn't particularly like Catcher in the Rye. I didn't necessarily dislike it, but it just never spoke to me in the way it spoke to so many others. I didn't fully understand why until I read Black Swan Green. For me (and I suspect many others), my youth was not one of prep schools, running away, prostitutes, or mental breakdowns. Most importantly, it was not full of dramatic ANGST, in the way that it is portrayed in Catcher in the Rye. Instead, like Jason Taylor in Black Swan Green, life was simply too busy for wallowing in angst ... "busy" in the sense of mundane adventures (that nevertheless feel more consequential than anything else in the world at the moment), family drama, and the interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror known as school! As much as one would like to hit the pause button, the merry-go-round of life never stops, especially for a young adult. Mitchell does an outstanding job capturing the day to day excitement, fear, loneliness, and dilemmas actually faced by a 13 year old--many of which can be easily generalized to the world of adults, which is no less full of pecking orders, pressure to look cool/competent, jingoism, fear of failure, etc. than the world of children. In fact, this is part of what makes Mitchell's story so gripping: despite the incredible detail and the specific setting in 1980s England, this is a microcosm representative of the world at large. As a result, Black Swan Green is an extremely universal tale--I felt like I could relate incredibly well to the story, despite growing up neither in the 1980s nor in England!
Black Swan Green was the third tale of Mitchell's that I've read (Cloud Atlas was the first; a character or two from that tale make a brief cameo in this book, in what felt like a slightly self-indulgent move by Mitchell, although it also was a bit clever as a meta-motif of the "everything-is-interconnected" lessons from that novel). Whereas Cloud Atlas is extremely "macro" in scope, Black Swan Green is much more "micro" in terms of geographic scope and time. Yet, it is equally gripping and has an equally important message. I fell in love with Mitchell's writing thanks to Cloud Atlas ... the infatuation only deepened thanks to Black Swan Green: this is an intelligent, gripping, and moving tale that easily belongs in the same conversation with some of literature's great works in the bildungsroman genre.
on June 20, 2006
In an interview, Mitchell protested that this is *not* a "coming of age" story: "There's always a kind of a journey at character level in fiction, and if that journey happens to occur to a fifteen year old, then people say, 'Aha, it's a Coming of Age Novel'." Indeed, this is really a year in the life of a thirteen-year-old. It's not about growing up--it's about being an early teen and dealing with everything life throws your way. I found this novel exceptionally good. I've never seen the word "genius" associated with a writer as much as it seems to be associated with Mitchell, and now I know why. Even though the plot in and of itself is quite straightforward and has none of the experimental elements of other Mitchell novels, the characters the author builds are so incredibly three-dimensional that you'll have a hard time believing they're just characters in a book. I can't quite tell you how Mitchell does it. That's where the genius comes in, I guess. I recommend this book strongly--it's impossible not to like it. In the same interview I mentioned above, Mitchell says of the book, "it's the best thing I've written. I'm quite confident of that." Whether you liked Cloud Atlas or were afraid to read it, you should read Black Swan Green.
on September 7, 2006
When I first picked up Black Swan Green I had very little knowledge of the contents of the book. I knew I had to read it by the end of summer, that's about it. As soon as I began reading I connected to Jason, the main character. As Jason stumbled along through adolescence I was reminded of my own experience. Acceptance, girls and family issues are three of the problems all teenagers must deal with. However, watching a character like Jason maneuver these problems makes you re-live the pain of middle-school. The book reminded me of a less awkward ¬Perks of Being a Wallflower. Although the slang is difficult to comprehend towards the beginning (at least for an American teen with his own set of slang) by the end you are ready to exchange nasty remarks with some popular bloke. The book is full of humor, patches of humility, frustration and sadness. David Mitchell's writing was perfect for the subject matter of the book, connecting you even further to the feeling of being thirteen. If you are either a teenager or have made it through your teen years you will enjoy this account of a male, teenage, English... well... you.
on April 25, 2006
Mitchell is fantastically talented, and Cloud Atlas was arguably a masterpiece, but here he falters a bit. It's a testament to his ability that his worst is still better than most everyone else, but despite all his linguistic dexterity this book has too many stops and starts, too many blind alleys and unrealized partial forays into myth. Stripped bare, the story is essentially predictable, even with a hint of cliche, and lacks the pyrotechnic imaginative power of his other books. I hope Mitchell concentrates on his strengths in the future--big-themed wildness, transcendence, glorious upredictability. Here he tries to dress up convention with set pieces that fall flat as often as they succeed. Even so, he's still just about the closest thing to a great writer going these days.