Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell

Random House, 2006

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The verdict: Heartfelt, accessible, and deeply compelling, Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel is an all-around triumph.

Let me start by saying I’m a huge David Mitchell fanboy. I’m consistently blown away by his raw talent, endless creativity, and sheer ambition as a writer. Having read other titles prior to this one, I knew I’d be predisposed to love Black Swan Green, but it still managed to surprise me. I didn’t grow up in 1980s England, but I had no trouble relating to the protagonist or seeing the world through his eyes. Some have compared Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel to Catcher in the Rye, and I’d dare to say it’s better. I found it more approachable, more universally appealing, and, frankly, more entertaining than the classic American Bildungsroman (I’m an English literature teacher, so I don’t say that lightly).

The novel follows 13-year-old Jason Taylor for one year (13 months to be exact—each chapter is its own episode that contributes to the larger narrative) in the small town of Black Swan Green. Jason worries about his rank in the social hierarchy of his school and how to fit in despite his stammer. He writes poetry but hides it under a pseudonym; he fears failure, exposure, and rejection, yet through a nonstop whirl of adventures must learn to experience and overcome all three. The scenes range from a tense family dinner with visiting relatives to a bizarre afternoon spent hiking down a horseback riding trail, with everything from the nighttime hazing of a secret club to a life-changing occurrence at a town fair in between. Jason accidentally breaks his grandfather’s treasured watch and then seeks to replace it before his parents find out. As the story progresses, Jason himself must break, sometimes forcibly and sometimes by choice, wondering if anything in life can ever be put back to the way it once was.

“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.'”

Mitchell’s achievement comes in how brilliantly he interweaves events of personal and global significance—Jason’s parents’ impending divorce, the growing conflict in the Falklands—without ever breaking the enchantment of the narrative. The slang fits without being distracting, and the reader stays just enough ahead to appreciate the joys and horrors of being a kid without exactly knowing how the story will end. Each of the chapters absorbs in its own way, from the ugly brutality of school bullies to the shy awkwardness of a first kiss, and the final tapestry is a timeless portrait of adolescence. Poignant throughout and a little bizarre in some parts, Black Swan Green is empathetic without sacrificing action and thought-provoking without sacrificing wit. To offer a criticism, I might say that the ending doesn’t pack a mind-blowing punch that will fundamentally change the way readers see the world, but I still found it satisfying. The subtlety provides a different kind of thesis. A 13-year-old doesn’t figure life out in a year, and that’s okay. Mitchell assures that, in the end, everything will be alright—but we’re still on the journey, and it’s not the end yet. I don’t have to be 13 to agree with that. Best suited for advanced teen readers and adults who appreciate literary prose, Black Swan Green is a rich depiction of a season of life and well worth the visit.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
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