I just finished Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s soaring, triumphant and totally ace novel, as the 13-year-old narrator Jason Taylor, would say.
Black Swan Green chronicles a year in the life of Jason Taylor, each chapter a different month in the year 1982. Jason and his sister and parents live in Black Swan Green, one of those villages in Worcestershire where nothing much happens and there aren’t even any swans.
I lied about nothing much happening, though. When you read about the world through Taylor’s eyes, Black Swan Green (and his own house in Kingfisher Meadows) is full of things happening. Things he can’t quite explain or wrap his head around, but that he processes in this narration. Some examples: grappling with his stammer, who is personified through the name Hangman, quests for popularity, writing poetry under the guise of the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar, the absolute cruelty of some children and the unending kindness of others, the Good teachers and the Bad teachers, encounters with gypsies and mental patients, the excitement and devastation surrounding the Falkland War, seeing his father in a new light while at a seaside resort, being tutored in poetry by a mysterious old woman, not quite measuring up to his super smooth cousin, seeing his parents argue for unknown reasons that become more known as the book continues on…in Black Swan Green, the mundane is no longer mundane. It’s all parts of the magical journey Jason Taylor is on of discovering himself.
Jason’s philosophical musings are also amazingly poignant and chill-inducing. Worth reading just for that.
The world never stops unmaking what the world never stops making. But who says the world has to make sense?
I can’t emphasize how triumphant this book is. It shows the unfurling of the human spirit! Taylor’s on the brink of everything. We see him come into his own. It’s so awesome. And it’s something we’ve all done. This book makes you appreciate your own journey out of childhood as not something inevitable and natural, but something you really worked at, something that was harder than you remember it being.
Often I think boys don’t become men. Boys just get papier-mâchéd inside a man’s mask. Sometimes you can tell the boy is still in there
When you read Black Swan Green, it’s like someone plunges you headfirst into your own childhood, these murky years of high school and Events of Great Importance that you know you lived through. I remember living through them, but I forgot how they felt. Black Swan Green reminded me. 13-year-old Elena evolved into 20-year-old Elena, but this book made me remember my previous incarnations. Not just remember, but appreciate. And not appreciate, but admire. Because what Black Swan Green reminds us is that being 13 is hard. Being 13 also comes with great discoveries brought on by great curiosity, it comes with submitting poetry to the parish magazine under a pseudonym, bullies and first kisses, hearing parents argue but not knowing why. When Jason narrators, as adults, see what’s going on behind his observations. But sometimes his observations are more important than our “knowing” perspective.
Me, I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right
Mitchell is an amazing storyteller, but I already knew that from reading Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten. He infuses Black Swan Green with heart, so much heart, and so much care and love for his narrator. That’s probably because it’s semi-autobiographical. Mitchell may not just be telling the story of Jason Taylor–he’s telling the story of David Mitchell, too.
Mitchell is such a convincing writer because when he narrates Jason, he really does say things through the voice of a 13 year old. He sees the world as its coming into focus with his own burgeoning maturity. Kind of like his whole life is being gradually unblurred, and he can see things in a new way. And what happens in this overlap between childhood and adulthood is just pure poetry.
Sidenote: Here are some examples of Jason seeing the world with poetry–funny and poignant.
“Listening to houses breathe makes you weightless.”
“The old lady’s rivery eyeballs chased the word across the page.”
“Lyme Regis was a casserole of tourists.”
“His skin was blotched as a dying banana.” See–Jason is 13, after all!