Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan GreenBlack 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.

About Judith
I'm owner and editor at and We edit books and articles for independent writers.

16 Responses to Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

  1. diane says:

    Sounds good! I just read he latest book recently and liked it, so I’ll need to try this one. Great review.

  2. Nice review! If you like intertextuality – I also love books being connected in some way – then you have to read ‘Ghostwritten’ as some of the characters from ‘Cloud Atlas’ also make short appearences. Unfortunately, I think he has now stopped employing this technique.

    • leeswammes says:

      Yes, I’m planning to read Ghostwritten too, Hombre. Like you, I didn’t see any links between Jacob de Zoet, Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green.

  3. amymckie says:

    Great review. I love connections like that between books, how awesome that he put them in like that!

  4. I’m a massive David Mitchell fan and I loved this book. It is great to hear a comparison to Prep as I have that waiting in my TBR pile 🙂

    • leeswammes says:

      That’s a coincidence, Jackie. Well, I’m pretty sure you’ll think BSG to be the better of the two books (I did) but Prep is comparable in terms of subject matter.

  5. Rachel says:

    This sounds really good. I hadn’t heard of this book or the author before now. Great review!

    • leeswammes says:

      Rachel, this author writes very well. I mean, the writing is very good. The books are all very different. Black Swan Green is coming of age (one year in the life of) while his newest book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob the Zoet is a historical novel taking place in the 18th Century in a Dutch colony in Japan. And Cloud Atlas is six related stories ranging from the past to a far away dystopian future. So, it’s very varied.

  6. Carin B. says:

    I think this book sounds good! You should go to your book club even if you aren’t feeling well. If the host didn’t like the book, surely there will be great discussion about it (unless their reaction is so visceral that discussion isn’t possible–that’s kind of what happened in my group)!

    I need to try reading David Mitchell’s books. They all sound interesting to me. I have one of his books on my virtual TBR list so hopefully I’ll get to it one day!

  7. Vasilly says:

    Now I want to read all three of David Mitchell’s books now! What a great review. I love the connections you made between the author and the main character and between both books.

  8. Andy JS says:

    According to Wikipedia there was a British composer by the name of Vyvian Ayres who lived from 1870 to 1932:

  9. Pingback: Quick Book Review: Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (DNF) « Leeswammes' Blog

  10. Pingback: Boekrecensie: Tijdmeters door David Mitchell | De Boekblogger

I love comments! Let me know what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: