Black Swan Green


David Mitchell




Date Reviewed:

June 30, 2007

lack Swan Green is a wonderful book. It's story is told by Jason Taylor, a 13 year old boy growing up in the small town of Black Swan Green, in the middle of England, in the 1980's. The novel reads like an autobiography. It sounds completely authentic, the language rings entirely true, from the slang to the stories that are related.

Unfortunately, it seems that everyone that Jason meets is a monster. Are all the English such sadistic bullies? Jason doesn't have a true friend, his life is a constant struggle to be accepted in the hierarchy of his classmates. He currently ranks as a middle tier guy, not a popular upper echelon guy, but not a complete "leper" either. Jason's situation is difficult because he stammers. He is desperately afraid that he will become tongue-tied in front of his peers - words that start with the letter N or S can give him problems, so he plans his speech to avoid using the forbidden letters. In the classroom, for example, Jason is asked "What is nine times eleven?" - of course he knows that answer is ninety-nine, but he can't risk speaking the letter N, so his answer is a hundred and one. He gets chastised by the teacher, but that is nothing - if he had blurted out ninety-nine and stammered in front of all the other kids, his fragile social standing would be shattered and he would be an outcast by the end of the school day.

The novel covers one year of Jason's life. Each chapter describes an event that occurs in one month. This format makes the novel a series of adventures, but they only loosely connect with each other. One month involves Jason's meeting with the speech therapist, but she never gets mentioned again in the rest of the book. The chapter where the relatives visit is excellent - the relatives are from Jason's mother's side - Jason's dad tries to make polite conversation, but alcohol unmasks the true feelings, and the dislike the relatives harbor for each other is plain to see. A wonderful example of an awkward family gathering. It looks like Nigel, Jason's cool cousin, might be an ally, but by the end of the chapter we see Nigel is definitely not Jason's friend.

The deteriorating relationship between Jason's mother and father is another disaster in Jason's life. The father works at Greenland grocers, toadying up to the senior executives. But there are money problems. Meanwhile, his mother reacts to the father's long work hours that keep him away from home by spending money - she decides she must have a rock pond in the yard, with fountains and fish, but things don't go exactly as planned. It is hilarious and painful at the same time.

One chapter describes the war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. To my memory, it was no contest, Argentina managed one lucky cruise missile hit on a British cruiser, but to Jason, the war is a major contest, with Argentina seemingly having the upper hand. Jason follows the nightly news closely, and it is interesting to see the war from the view point of the patriotic British press. Of course, they quickly win, and Thatcher is a hero.

Despite the constant harassment by the class bullies, Jason maintains his good nature. He writes poems for the local newspaper, but under an alias of course, because if any one found out, he would be ostracized for certain. Jason character is put to the test several times - such as the time a friend falls through a greenhouse on a nighttime initiation trial, or when he finds the wallet of one of his worst tormentors.

This book is frequently compared to A Catcher in the Rye, but I didn't find Salinger's work to be such a masterpiece. When I read A Catcher in the Rye, I was puzzled by its acclaim. In my opinion, Black Swan Green is much better book. Black Swan Green has also been compared to Lord of the Flies, the brutal story of savagery between a band of stranded young boys. It is easy to believe that if Jason's bullying peers were dropped onto an unsupervised island, it wouldn't be long before violence of the type depicted in Lord of the Flies broke out.

I thought this was a really good book, I stayed up late to finish it in a few nights.