“These jokes the world plays, they’re not funny at all.”
I love a good coming-of-age novel, and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell is one of the best.
Black Swan Green takes place in a middle-class neighborhood of Worcestershire, England, in the early 1980s. The book is narrated by 13-year-old Jason Taylor. Black Swan Green is divided into thirteen chapters that cover thirteen consecutive months in Jason’s life. The chapters have an episodic style, each presenting a vignette of Jason’s life as he deals with the universal issues of young teenage boyhood: family struggles, friends and bullies, ill-advised troublemaking adventures, and failed attempts to decipher the mysterious nature of girls.
What elevates Black Swan Green above other coming-of-age novels is the voice that David Mitchell has created for Jason, making him one of the most vibrant, hilarious, and authentic narrators from any book I’ve read. Mitchell has captured the language and culture of early 1980s England perfectly. By the end of the book, you may also be thinking in terms of the teenage slang from early Thatcherist England.
David Mitchell adeptly captures the anxieties of boyhood. Besides the usual anxieties related to school, bullies, and girls, Jason also experiences stuttering. Jason personifies his stutter as “Hangman,” an entity who grabs words out of his mouth as he is trying to enunciate them. When Jason is speaking, he carefully plans ahead to avoid letters and syllables that are known to cause him problems. The way Mitchell presents Jason’s struggle with stuttering is both authentic and endearing as we see the potential words racing through Jason’s mind as he attempts to find the right combination of letters that will evade Hangman’s grasp.
Black Swan Green also presents the larger problems in Jason’s parents’ marriage via snippets throughout the chapters, although we don’t know the full scale of their problems until later in the book. The gradual way that Mitchell reveals these issues is an effective and realistic portrayal coming from the point of view of a 13-year-old son with other pressing issues on his mind.
Although not fantasy, side characters from Black Swan Green reappear in David Mitchell’s later World Fantasy Award-winning novel, The Bone Clocks, and in his science fiction masterpiece, Cloud Atlas, making Black Swan Green an essential part of the greater Mitchellverse.
Overall, Black Swan Green does an amazing job of getting the reader inside the mind of a 13-year-old boy in the early 1980s. Jason will make you laugh out loud with his humor and feel the same adolescent anxieties that he feels. Black Swan Green is ace.