Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Black Swan Green is probably David Mitchell’s most straightforward novel, but that doesn’t make it any less striking. Mitchell’s imagination is such that he generally creates fantastic settings or makes the real seem fantastical, such as the dreamlike Tokyo of number9dream, but Black Swan Green is a tale of normality that Mitchell nonetheless makes riveting.
It is 1982 and Jason Taylor is a 13 year old boy with a stammer, living in the sleepy village of Black Swan Green. Black Swan Green follows 13 months of his life, with each chapter covering a month, from January 1982 to January 1983. Along the way we experience Jason’s insecurity, budding poetry skill, growing interest in the opposite sex and bullying.
Black Swan Green doesn’t follow a traditional narrative as such, instead reading as 13 interconnected pieces of short fiction. This kind of fractured narrative is of course nothing new for Mitchell, in fact I may go so far as to call it his trademark. As with his other books, all of the separate parts form a cohesive whole when viewed together. Where Cloud Atlas looked at grand themes such as reincarnation, or Ghostwritten at the tiny coincidences that define our lives, Black Swan Green opts to focus on the life of a British teenage boy in the 1980s. Mitchell tackles a variety of topics as he goes, such as the Falklands War, small town bigotry and the nature of poetry and he looks at all with remarkable grace.
In the wrong hands, this is exactly the kind of book which could have been excruciatingly boring. Mitchell’s writing is just so evocative and elegiac that it’s nigh impossible not to get swept up in what’s happening, even if it’s fairly mundane. This book is funny too, with Mitchell being more than willing to look at the more ridiculous sides of being a teenager. There are these wonderful moments where Jason will ponder something fairly profound and then undercut it something hilariously crude. Jason may be an exceptionally empathetic and sensitive teenage boy, but he’s still a teenage boy.
Jason is a likeable character, but the supporting cast are well developed too. His contemporaries at school, both friends and bullies are vividly drawn. In fact, one is Neal Brose who fans of Ghostwritten might remember and it’s interesting to see how he ended up the way he is. There’s also a startlingly touching Cloud Atlas connection which actually moved me to tears. It’s utterly bizarre that David Mitchell has created his own expanded universe, but I love it.
Black Swan Green sounded like it wouldn’t be my sort of thing, but I loved it. Every single Mitchell novel is a treat and I now only have one left, which I’m looking forward to tucking in to.