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David Mitchell: Black Swan Green

Mitchell’s fourth novel is more conventional than its predecessors and, while certainly not a bad novel, it is accordingly less interesting. It tells of just over a year in the life of Jason Taylor who, for most of the period is thirteen years old. The novel is set primarily in 1982 so the background is Thatcher, the Falklands war, arcade video games and early 1980s music, some of dubious quality. Jason, like most thirteen year olds, is struggling with life. In particular, he has a stutter which he tries desperately to control but does not manage to. (It seems to be psychological, rather than physical. Mitchell himself suffers from this affliction.) He is also dealing with many of the other things boys of that age deal with – peers and peer pressure, a growing realisation that girls might be of some interest, squabbling parents and a despised older sister.

Much of the novel revolves around the issue of his peers and bullying at his school in the fictitious Worcestershire village of Black Swan Green (based on the real village of Hanley Swan). Jason is not too popular but not too unpopular, either. He is not big and tough but not completely spazz, to use the term he uses. However, he is pushed down the scale when he is seen going to the cinema with his mother (which is so gay, the ultimate insult) and then when his stutter is revealed. As a result, he is terrorised by some of the bigger boys (and girls), though manages to more or less survive. However, when a series of divine interventions help him overcome his enemies, the novel really starts to lose credibility. You get the feeling that this was based on wish fulfillment on the part of Mitchell, rather than any convincing attempt to describe what might really have happened.

The other unconvincing scenario involves Jason’s poetry. He has adopted the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar to write poetry for the parish magazine. When he stumbles on Mme Crommelynck, (pulled from Cloud Atlas, when she was much younger) who tries to mould him into a poet, things start to look unconvincing. When he later gets encouragement from his despised older sister, you know that Mitchell is struggling. Poetry is, as he reminds us more than once, so gay.

The gradual deterioration of his parents’ marriage, as seen from his perspective, his relationship with his friend Dean Moran (I might be pushing it but the name immediately recalls Dean Moriarty in On the Road; moreover, the initials DM may not be a coincidence) and fear of the bullies are well done but the trouble with this story is that the trials and tribulations of thirteen year olds has been done better by writers from James Joyce to Ann Beattie. There isn’t much original left to say on the topic. Yes, thirteen year boys are interested in but ignorant about girls. Yes, they like action films and crappy pop music. Yes, they still have a sense of adventure. Yes, they despise their sisters and are struggling to move away from their parents. And when he moves away from the obvious, such as into the poetry or the dire scene with the local gypsies, it really doesn’t work. And what English boy in 1982 would use the word zits or say Plus, I did that…?

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Hodder & Stoughton