Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

by Lily Wren

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Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Date of publication: 2007

Contemporary Literature
*****

After one game of round-the-clock I put my darts away and came back inside. Dad was watching a debate about whether or not Britain should have American cruise missiles on its soil. Mrs Thatcher says yes so it’ll happen. Since the Falklands no one can tell her no. p.284

It’s 1982 and Jason Taylor is 13 years old. Jason narrates the story of a year in his life. Every day is a battle for Jason growing up in the fictitious English village of ‘Black Swan Green’. He tries (and fails) to evade school bullies, he fights his stammer (otherwise known as ‘The Hangman’), writes poetry under the pseudonym of Eliot Bolivar and at home his parents are going through one of those ‘silent in front of the kids lets split up’ periods. Growing up is tough for Jason. Despite all this, and maybe because of all this, Jason is one of the most level-headed and empathic characters I have read in a book for a long, long time.

Mitchell draws heavily upon his experiences growing up in the 70’s and 80’s and particularly from when he started to develop an awareness of problems with his speech at the age of 7 or 8. Jason Taylor is, in part, David Mitchell. Mitchell conjures up the early 80’s with such accuracy that I felt I was transported back there. Forget the current trend for romanticising the 80’s. Read Black Swan Green and get a true picture of those of us ‘misfits’ who were growing up and ‘coming of age’ during this time. Mitchell hits the nail on my head. The politics, fashion, furniture, school days, tv programmes and even the food. Nothing is left out.

Lunch at 9 Kingfisher Meadows, Black Swan Green, Worcestershire, was Findus ham ‘n’ cheese Crispy Pancakes, crinkle-cut oven chips and sprouts. Sprouts taste of fresh puke but Mum said I had to eat five without making a song and dance about it, or there’d be no butterscotch Angel Delight for pudding. p.13

Black Swan Green is beautifully written, witty, painful and wonderfully nostalgic as we get to hear about Jason’s life during this time, his woes, experiences and struggles. The sense of belonging Jason tries to attain with others at school, the bullying he endures and yet manages to come back from, the awkward crush on the local goth girl, his rather dysfunctional family, the embarrassment he feels as he tries to get his words out, the heartlessness displayed by some of the teachers and, in the midst of all this, some brighter moments portrayed in the warm relationship he develops with his friend Dean Moran, another school outcast, and his older sister Julia. Jason could easily become a pitiful character, a ‘victim’, but he doesn’t and he isn’t. Mitchell has created such a well-rounded, real character that you can’t help but feel affinity towards and root for.

Picked-on kids act invisible to reduce the chances of being noticed and picked on. Stammerers act invisible to reduce the chances of being made to say something we can’t. Kids whose parents argue act invisible in case we trigger another skirmish. The Triple Invisible Boy, that’s Jason Taylor. Even I don’t see the real Jason Taylor much these days ‘cept for when we’re writing a poem, or occasionally in a mirror. Or just before sleep. p.296

I’m not one to throw out 5 stars willy-nilly, but sod it, this is one of the best books I have read this year. It runs neck and neck with ‘Flowers for Algernon’ and ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’.  Need I say more?!

 

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