BLACK SWAN GREEN by David Mitchell
US pub date: 2006
Publisher: Random House
My review on Goodreads
“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.”
Black Swan Green is David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical novel about a thirteen year old boy, Jason Taylor, growing up in Worcestershire England in the 1980s. This is a bildungsroman about navigating adolescence, which captures with aplomb how absurd and hypocritical and draining the whole experience is. But it’s also a novel filled to the brim with hope and humor, told with honesty and vulnerability. I was immediately endeared to thoughtful and sensitive Jason, who hides the fact that he writes poetry from his family and classmates in order to avoid social isolation.
Mitchell details the ins and outs of unspoken social norms which govern the male adolescent life with admirable precision: you’re only allowed to call someone by their first name if they’re one of the popular kids, you can’t be seen in public with your parents unless it happens to be an event where everyone else is out with their parents too, if you start dancing too soon at a school dance you’re a loser but if you don’t join it at just the right time you’re lame – and the absurdity here lies in just how much sense it all makes. I was instantly transported back to high school and the complex set of social dynamics which at the time felt like life or death, but which looking back on now just seem sort of silly. The stakes in this book constantly feel high, but not melodramatically so. There’s a self-awareness that permeates the narrative, saying, hey, I know this is ridiculous, but it’s also survival.
Mitchell’s approach to this narrative is fragmentary rather than cohesive, each chapter representing a single episode from each month of the year. Not all of these episodes are centered around Big Life Events, either. Sometimes it’s the little things that end up defining us the most, and that’s what Mitchell hones in on. Each chapter reads like a short story, but it all comes together in the end; you gradually realize how and why each of these incidents shaped Jason so profoundly, and how they tie in to the bigger things going on in his life at the time (his parents’ fragile marriage, the Falklands War and the death of a local boy overseas, the political climate of England under Thatcher’s leadership).
There’s so much packed into this book, my brain is still reeling from it all. Black Swan Green tackles the fragility of human connections; the difficulty of being true to oneself while also trying to fit in; the futility of war; the hypocrisy of the way some parents interact with their teenaged children; the utter powerlessness that comes with being young; knowing on some level that youth is transient but not really believing it. Ironically, though this book is told from the point of view of a teenage boy, I think I got more out of it reading it as an adult than I would have reading it when I was that age. That isn’t to say that it’s inaccessible to teenagers or that younger readers would miss the thematic richness. But I think it helped that I’m removed enough from that period in my life that this story doesn’t feel quite as raw to me as it does to Jason.
At any rate, this was an unexpectedly moving book, told on one level with urgency and on another with a nostalgic reflection. The result is original and poignant and I loved it. And to the person who lent it to me: sorry it took me three years.