Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, is the story of 13-year-old Jason Taylor’s battle with being 13 years old. Puberty, peer pressure, teenage awkwardness, school bullies, a crippling speech defect and life in a dysfunctional family in an isolated Worcestershire village – called Black Swan Green – make it all the more difficult for him to find a place for himself against the backdrop of the 1980s Thatcher era and the Falklands War.
Judging by my work colleagues’ reactions when I described the plot to them, to most people this book sounds unbearably bleak. To me, even from the outset it sounded fantastic. As a general rule, I’m a sucker for anything written about the fascinating creature that was Margaret Thatcher, as well as a great lapper-upper of coming-of-age/ formative year novels or Bildungsromane (whatever you want to call them).
This is the first David Mitchell book I’ve read but it certainly will not be the last. I deeply admire his success in writing from the perspective of a child; I find it requires great skill to convey the interpretive innocence and worldly misunderstanding of a young person in a way that does not result in a narrow, oversimplified, frustrating interface with the reader. This skill abounds in Mitchell’s novel: the world is not simplified through Jason’s outlook; rather, the character’s imagination is shown to compensate for what he does not fully comprehend, generating a representation of his issues and his surroundings that is entirely fresh, entirely compelling and entirely distinct from an adult’s perspective. Indeed, the construction of the relationships between Jason’s classmates and family members and even the odd stranger is some of the finest and most subtle work in the novel, complete as it is with biting dialogue and undertones of rivalry, pressure, judgement and, in some unexpected cases, love.
The effect of this narrative mastery produces a 5/5 star novel that is deeply relatable for anyone who has been through adolescence and, invariably, come face-to-face with the accompanying periods of bitching, bullying, discomfort and self-loathing contiguous with this brutal phase of life. (Do any of us know anyone who was never bullied to some degree at school?!) Most unbearable and un-putdownable for me were the scenes between Jason and his detached parents. Overall, Jason’s experiences are made to seem simultaneously dreadful and heart-wrenchingly ordinary. As a reader, you feel Jason’s pain and uncertainty as flashbacks of your own, becoming the victim all over again, whilst at the same time the sense of injustice you feel on his behalf turns you into his protector. This is not just an immersive, formative experience for Jason but for the reader too, whose own life is put into perspective by seeing Jason’s play out.
As it happens, Black Swan Green is also a great novel to choose for this Placing Myself challenge, since it has a heck of a lot to say about place and space.
Mitchell seems to suggest that a lot of Jason’s insecurity and nervousness in day-to-day life stems from his inability to form a relationships with the physical environment in which he lives. In fact, the very first sentence of the novel, in which Jason recalls his father’s command, “Do not set foot in my office” (1), exemplifies the continuing theme of Jason being barred from relating to space, even in his own house. Neighbouring farmers are no more helpful in offering him a mode of belonging; they resent Jason’s “townie” (163) presence in the village, for his family lives in “little toy mansions on land [the farmers have] been workin’ for generations” (89). What’s more, Jason’s frequent encounters with Ross Wilcox and the other neighbourhood bullies means that he feels as if “Planet Earth’d shrunk to a bubble five paces wide” (271); no wonder he can find no place of comfort in the village when on every street he is tormented and persecuted by boys from school.
Just to make matters worse, the village itself is so lacking in status in England – “it’s the most boring county so no one ever knows where it is” (215) – that he would be unable to feel pride in his upbringing even if he wanted to. Its lack of swans despite its name is a big “joke” (82) that fills him with a sense of inadequacy in the face of outsiders. As a result he is, quite literally, prevented from finding and respecting his own place in the world – without a true home, his identity is unstable, and his self-worth and self-belief suffer as a result.
“God, if I had a car like Ewan’s MG, I’d get out of Black Swan Green faster than a Super Etendard. Far away from Mum and Dad and their three-, four- and five-star arguments. Far from school and Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake and Neal Brose and Mr Carver […] I’d never, ever ever come back to muddy Worcestershire” (135-6).
The only place Jason seems remotely happy – although still not consistently – is in the woods. Reminiscent of Ann in Pollard, “trees,” he says, “’re always a relief, after people” (10); not only is “the real Jason Taylor” (296) allowed to come out in the woods, away from prying eyes, but he is also able to take pride in the fact that he knows “all the paths in this part” (11), and is continuously interested in exploring more and more, to “track the bridlepath to its mysterious end” (87) for the sheer adventure of it. The respect that is lacking for ridiculously-named Black Swan Green is made up for in his reverence for the woods, where time and nature are “older” and “truer” (296) than anything manmade. Within these woodland walls, he can convince himself that he is no longer shy, but an intrepid explorer, master of his surroundings. Perhaps, then, there is hope he may find a place for himself in the world yet? Alas, at the end of the novel, when he has matured in more ways than one, he realises “this whole wood’s only a few acres […] Two or three footy pitches, tops” (364) – his childhood imagination, which conjured a majestic forest in which to hide himself, crumbles at these words. Growing up and realising the possibility of moving away and moving on with his life is a broadening of his horizons, to be sure, but the wake from innocence comes with a nasty jolt, and the fight to belong may never be over. (I don’t want to gush, but my goodness how Mitchell’s writing does move me.)
If Jason’s life wasn’t unstable enough with such a lack of physical belonging, Mitchell goes one step further to bar his protagonist from forming a confident relationship with language. Not only does Jason struggle, like every child, to express himself in an adult world – “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” (149) – but, with a stammer he has to combat in every single sentence, Jason can rarely find words to accurately represent himself to others. Once again, the process of establishing his identity in the world around him is jeopardised, leaving his sense of selfhood floundering in uncertainty. For a 13-year-old, stammering in front of his peers is equivalent to “death” (11) and, unnervingly, his private nickname for the spirit that constricts his own throat is the “Hangman” (31). He lives in mortal fear of this spirit preying on his alphabet, taking one letter after another until the J-words go and “I won’t even be able to say my own name” (31). Truly, the way Mitchell describes Jason’s distress with holding simple conversations is haunting; Jason’s creativity in circumventing problem words fills the reader with consternation as well as intense sorrow that he can be left to struggle alone, so let down by those around him.
But, just as the woods provide Jason with some imaginative relief for his feeling of homelessness, so Mitchell offers Jason occasional respite from his war with words. After all, despite his difficulty with verbal expression, Jason’s proves his linguistic creativity by writing advanced poems for the village newsletter…under a pseudonym, of course, or his classmates would skin him alive. The strange and mysterious Madame Crommelynck is, for all he knows, his sole reader, poetic teacher and encourager; she is the only one who knows his true identity and who encourages him to use his “hated” real name, Jason Taylor, which he thinks of as “flavourless as chewed receipts”: “’What is more poetic than ‘Jason’, an Hellenic hero? […] And what is a poet if he is not a tailor of words?’” (193). Mitchell certainly provides Jason with hugely inventive ways of interpreting the world: he revels in discovering “secret colours nobody’s ever named” (85), in expressing the inexpressible – “a sick bus growled past and made the air taste of pencils” (246) – and in searching for true beauty, even if “beautiful [is] the gayest word going” (116) for most adolescent boys. He presses his ear against the earth and draws inspiration from it; his creativity has the potential to give him agency for his own representation in future – if only he can grasp this with both hands before he is silenced altogether.
I could go on for hours (even longer than I have done already, believe it or not) about the cleverest elements of this novel, which are all the more intelligent for being presented through a child’s perspective.
- Like the way Mitchell describes the British class system in terms of a game of Monopoly, with the fancy cousins – who live in glamorous London, of course – already having “hotels on Mayfair and Park Lane” while Jason and his family are “still swapping Euston Road for Old Kent Road plus £300 and praying to scoop the kitty from Free Parking” (53).
- Or how Mitchell seems to criticise the arrogant British attitude to war through a competitive game of British Bulldogs in which boys “lost three teeth” (6), were forced to turn “traitor” and which, all in all, shamefully, wasn’t “about taking part or even about winning” but about “humiliating your enemies” (7).
- Or the way Mitchell highlights English ignorance and carelessness about all other parts of the UK: “Aberystwyth’s a bit of a dive, but Dad says John o’ Groats’s just a few houses where Scotland runs out of Scotland. Isn’t no god better than one who does that to people?” (164). “Accuracy on matters Irish is not the forte of the English” (219-20).
But I’m not going to go on for hours, because you really should read this incredibly moving, incredibly rewarding novel for yourselves. In fact, I think I’m going to go and start it again, right now…
Next week I’ll be reading Phil Rickman’s The Fabric of Sin. It looks like it might be a strange one, so join me soon to find out more!