Black Swan Green by David Mitchell is a beautifully written novel that captures the difficulty of growing up while delivering a unique view of family and society in England circa 1982.
I’d read a number of negative reviews prior to reading Black Swan Green. Many readers seemed unwilling to stray from Mitchell’s multi-narrative structure (as seen in Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten) or couldn’t relate to Jason Taylor, the 13 year old stammering protagonist.
To those naysayers I say this: you are wrong.
Readers who really pay attention to Black Swan Green will recognize that it is a multi-narrative structure. Instead of stories from far flung reaches of the globe or throughout time they are simply stories from a year in the life of one person. Yet, what is packed into the year in the life of a 13 year old boy can be quite varied. They’re like the tracks on an eclectic CD compilation. Mitchell levels his unflinching prose on war, unemployment, acceptance, friendship, death and divorce.
In addition, Mitchell paints incredible stories through the lens of Jason Taylor. It’s not just about Jason’s coming of age story, it’s about all the adult issues swirling around him. You’ve missed substantial portions of Black Swan Green if you’re simply reading what is written on the page. Mitchell’s genius is in his ability to create stories that live off the page, that blossom out of a few simple sentences into the known spaces of understanding and feeling.
While reading I often turn the corner down on a page if I find a phrase or passage particularly interesting. Black Swan Green is filled with turned down corners! Here’s an example that is both evocative and intimately linked to the time period.
I crossed the flooded clinic car park leaping from dry bit to dry bit like James Bond froggering across the crocodiles’ backs.
Or this incredible observation in relation to how an alcoholic parent can be so different but the same person.
Green is made of yellow and blue, nothing else, but when you look at green, where’ve the yellow and the blue gone?
And then this supreme example of the inability to define beauty.
Beauty is immune to definition. When beauty is present, you know. Winter sunrise in dirty Toronto, one’s new lover in an old cafe, sinister magpies on a roof. But is the beauty of these made? No. Beauty is here, that is all. Beauty is.
Mitchell can also put down on paper and describe a feeling that I am certain many of you have experienced.
School corridors’re sort of sinister during classtime. The noisiest spaces’re now the silentest. Like a neutron bomb’s vaporized human life but left all the building standing. These drowned voices you hear aren’t coming from classrooms, but through the partitions between life and death.
In revisiting a elementary school Mitchell delivers another thought-provoking turn of phrase.
Primary school seemed so huge then. How can you be sure anything is ever its real size?
Finally, something that sums up much of what Black Swan Green is about.
The world won’t let things be. It’s always injecting endings into beginnings.
Many of these passages were jaw dropping, enough for me to stop reading and put the book down to marvel and think. Black Swan Green confirms and maintains Mitchell’s position as one of the best writers of this generation.