I do like a bit of David Mitchell, and Black Swan Green is no exception. Surprisingly, for Mitchell, there are no ghosts or space aliens, or whatever was going on in The Bone Clocks… Instead we get a charming story about Jason Taylor, a thirteen year old boy in 1982. Black Swan Green is an odd title, and made me think it was gonna be another weird one. But actually it’s just the name of the place, The Black Swan is a pub and the green is a green. The joke is that there aren’t any black swans in Black Swan Green, or white swans for that matter.
On the one hand you could say that not much happens, and on the other quite a bit happens. It’s a year in the life of Jason Taylor who struggles with a stammer. He writes poems and has them published under a pseudonym in the village newsletter and he also has a growing interest in girls. His parents are fighting and the threat of a separation is on the cards. And he’s trying to navigate school politics (the popular kids, the bullies, the ‘lepers’, as well as the teachers).
The real politics of the decade are ever present. The Falklands War, now considered a bit of a ridiculous joke in Britain, looms large over the first few months of the book. It hits home for Jason as the brother of one of the boys in his class is caught up in the fighting. At the end of the war it’s all hail Margaret Thatcher who is regarded as the hero of The Falklands.
Being the 1980’s, Jason spends a lot of time wandering off by himself, something that I was strictly forbidden from doing in the subsequent decades when I was growing up. But kids could do that in the olden days. Something we’ve lost. On the flip side though, his teachers are pretty abhorrent, joining in with homophobic chants or generally shouting and shrieking at the children.
I really liked this book. Mitchell has said it is partially auto-biographical, and he also suffers from stammering. It was really interesting, not as captivating as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but I liked it more than any of the other books by him.
Other Books by David Mitchell
Mitchell likes to reference his own works by reusing other characters. Jason’s cousin, Hugo Lamb, is a major player in subsequent book, The Bone Clocks. Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, a strange old woman who critiques Jason’s poetry, first appeared in Cloud Atlas. One of the pupils, Neal Brose, appears as an adult in Ghostwritten. I quite like the subtle referencing, as it seems like all Mitchell’s book exist in the same world. But at times I think it’s a little distracting.