Review

Black Swan Green

by David Mitchell



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 December 22, 2010

Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell

  • Publication Date: February 27, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812974018
  • ISBN-13: 9780812974010