Black Swan Green
By David Mitchell
First Published: 2006
Review © 2011 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Modern Fiction, Literature
Black Swan Green is an extraordinary coming of age novel by David Mitchell that will appeal to almost everyone. The story is told by a 13 year only boy named Jason Taylor who is searching for a way through the many landmines of middle school and adolescence in England circa 1982. However, Jason has a handicap that makes middle school even more challenging; he has a problem with stammering which sets him up as an easy target for abuse. Jason’s encounters with bullies provides some of the key drama of the novel along with his coming to grips with the realities of growing up in a far from perfect world.
In Black Swan Green, David Mitchell does a masterful job of creating characters and situations that seem completely authentic. Jason is a sensitive boy from an upper middle class family attending a lower to middle class public school where any signs of sensitivity or softness are exploited unmercifully. His school has all the types of characters you would expect, tough kids with sketchy backgrounds, leaders, followers, the popular groups, the middle invisible kids, and the kids who have been ostracized because of any number of real or imagined faults. While many of the characters may be based on stereotypes, they are for the most part fully fleshed out and, in some cases, we find out details of how these characters were molded into their current form. Jason finds himself walking a tightrope as he attempts to earn acceptance and, at the very least, avoid becoming one of the outcasts.
Jason sees a speech therapist to work on his stammer and continuously struggles to work around his problem with conversation by using alternate words for those that he can’t get out cleanly. This constant struggle to communicate without looking a fool creates no end of stress for Jason. His outlet for all this frustration is poetry where he finds he can express himself much better than through the spoken word. He’s even managed to become regularly published in the local parish magazine. But he has to keep his poetry an absolute secret and is careful to use a pseudonym in order to avoid being labeled “gay” which would lead to persecution in school of the worst sort.
Jason is, in fact, becoming increasingly interested in the opposite sex. Of course his first encounters are mostly disasters and provide some hilarious comedy. As usual, at this age, girls are the ultimate mystery (not that girls become much more understandable as they mature into women). Jason’s male classmates, on the other hand, are much more straightforward to deal with. However, it only takes one misstep to place Jason in the cross-hairs of one of the worst bullies leading to utter public humiliation. With Jason’s life as he knows it in a shambles, he must dig down to his innermost self to pull himself out of the muck.
Black Swan Green is a wonderfully written modern Odyssey through adolescence. I would guess that almost every reader will find at least one portion with which they can identify. Each chapter brings a new adventure where Jason learns more about himself and the realities of life. There are moments of laugh out loud comedy and others of deep emotional pain. Everyone with any kind of a heart should read Black Swan Green. You are sure to have an incredible experience.