§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

This is a coming of age story, probably autobiographical, about a sensitive 13-year-old boy in the Worcestershire village of Black Swan Green (where everyone says there aren’t any swans, black or otherwise). It’s a more straightforward narrative than Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s previous novel, though it skips from time to time and topic to topic, often without transition, and the language is chock full of the slang and abbreviation characteristic of kids. There’s even one "bleed" of content from Cloud Atlas, when our hero meets an extravagant woman named Crommelynke, obviously related to the Belgian family on the estate where the mythical English compose, Frobischer, takes refuge.

Jason Taylor lives with his middle class family (father, a grocery executive, mother, a house wife, and an older sister who’s far more self assured than he is) in a suburban house and goes to a comprehensive school. The bane of his life is a tendency to stammer (“The Hangman”), which he’s working on with a speech therapist, but which he suspects (rightly as it turns out) will make him the butt of jokes if his classmates find out.

The story takes place during the calendar year of 1982. January starts out with British Bulldogs on the ice where Jason breaks his grandfather’s watch and is too afraid to tell his parents. He eavesdrops on young lovers in the woods and then mourns with the village when the boy is killed a few months later in the Falklands War. He spends a few Saturday afternoons with the exotic Madame Crommelynke who gives him hints of a broader context of life and art than the village offers as she encourages him in his writing of poetry, and discourages his hiding behind the childish pseudonym of Eliot Bolivar. (Jason doesn’t admit to writing poetry because his environment tells him that “Writing poetry is….what creeps and poofters do”.) He gradually learn how to deal with the bullies; when his worst enemy is maimed in an accident in the midst of an attempt to terrorize Jason, he feels vaguely responsible, though the reader sees that Ross Wilcox’s accident was caused by his own inability to control his anger while Jason escaped persecution largely because he did control his emotions. Jason experiences his first kiss and at Christmas learns that his parents are separating and his world will change dramatically.

One reviewer called Jason’s voice “achingly true to life” and I’d have to agree. Another reviewer compared Jason’s adventures to those of Huck and Tom and that’s certainly appropriate, especially when Jason and his mates attempt to find the ancient Roman tunnel through the Malvern hills or when Jason happens into a gypsy camp to discover that this minority is quite as suspicious of the middle class who want them out of Black Swan Green as the villagers are of them. Disarming as Huck Finn, Jason usually assumes that the grownups are right and he’s wrong when in fact his moral compass is excellent. He’s rewarded for his acceptance of the gypsies when they take him to see the dramatic landing of…a swan.


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