Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
August 25, 2010 16 Comments
Black Swan Green (2006) by David Mitchell is about Jason Taylor, who is 13 years old and lives in a village in Worcestershire, England.
He has a hard time fitting in as there are strict rules on how to be one of the guys. If you’re one of the low-ranking boys no one wants anything to do with you except for other low-ranking boys (who you want to avoid like the plague) and you’re likely to be a target of bullies.
So, Jason tries to fit in (he’s happy with a medium rank), hiding the fact that he writes poems (definitely a gay thing to do, so absolutely out of the question) and the fact that he stammers when trying to pronounce certain words (ideal fodder for bullies).
The story captures a year in the life of Jason, no longer a child but not a full-blown teenager yet, If you were 13 in the eighties (which is when the story takes place) you will recognize a lot in the book: computers with cassette recorder external drives, Talking Heads, the Falklands war and much more.
Jason’s stammering rules his life: he is determined not to be found out. When there is a word that is difficult to pronounce, he will us a different word instead. This way, he can keep up the pretense of speaking fluently. For instance, instead of saying “I didn’t” when asked whether he was spying on a schoolmate’s maths solution, he said “I…” but then “Isn’t true, sir”.
Since I know that David Mitchell himself has a slight tendency to stammer (I saw him at a local book signing), I assume he has used the same method to keep his stammering under control. This may then be part of the reason he has become such a great word smith – substituting words on a regular basis makes for a creative mind!
What I liked was that there is a link with Mitchells’ 2004 book Cloud Atlas. In both books the protagonist visits the household of Vyvyan Ayres, a British composer (who, as far as I can make out, is a fragment of Mitchell’s imagination). In Cloud Atlas, Robert Frobisher visits Ayres, his wife and his daughter in 1931, when they are living in Belgium. Fifty years later, Jason visits the widow of Ayres, who is by then living locally to him.
I loved this because there was an element of recognition when I read this, but I couldn’t quite place it at first. I love this sort of connection between books [although in the eyes of Madam Outryve de Crommelynck, widow of Vyvyan Ayres, one should be specific and not say “sort of”].
Recently I read Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, in which a 14 year old girl goes to an American boarding school. The book successfully describes her worries and attempts to fit in, similar to Jason in England. These two books should be sold as a boxed set of teenager angst (covering both sexes and two continents)!
Rating: 4.5/5 (or maybe 5/5)
Extra: See also my review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Also reviewed by Cultural Constellations.