Jan 17, 2011

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green is set in a fictional small town in Worcestershire of the same name during the early 1980’s. It’s an episodic novel that follows thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor for twelve months, each chapter dealing with the events of a month. Jason’s life is marked by his struggle with a speech impediment he has nicknamed “Hangman”, and he lives in mortal fear of what a wide knowledge of these struggles would do to his already precarious social standing. Over the course of the year, Jason also has to deal with problems in his parents’ marriage, with the Falklands War and its impact on his small community, and with school bullying, no to mention the general business of growing up.

Black Swan Green reminded me quite a bit of Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, even though the two novels have quite different tones. But both are coming-of-age stories whose protagonists deal with some of the same things, and both have far more going on under the surface than it might seem at first glance. But they also have very different narrative structures: like Raych was saying the other day, Black Swan Green is tantalizing. The chapters will often end just when that particular episode has reached its climax, after witch Mitchell will take his sweet time to let us know what actually happened.

I worry that by telling you this I’m making Mitchell’s narrative technique sound both annoying and gratuitous, but the thing is, it really isn’t. Black Swan Green works because it has emotional, if not narrative, continuity. The style reinforces the theme that it’s not so much what happens as it is what a certain experience feels like for an individual that matters. What shapes us, what makes us how we are, aren’t so much the raw events of our lives but how we live them. The interplay between style and themes, then, is quite cleverly done – and it works beautifully.

One of my favourite things about Black Swan Green was how well it captured the cruelty of being young. Middle school was by far my least favourite period of my life to date, and this novel reminded me of why. It’s very easy to underestimate, in retrospect, just how ruthless thirteen-year-olds can be. The other thing I loved about it was Mitchell’s insightful analysis of maleness as a social construct – in this case, the construct is a very narrow little box into which Jason Taylor most definitely doesn’t fit.

I apologise in advance for relating every book I read lately to Delusions of Gender, but yes, that’s going to keep happening for a while. The stereotype of the Man From Mars (or what some people out there are getting very rich saying is the Honest To Goodness Biological Truth) is that of a creature just barely capable to make sense of his own feelings, who finds empathising an insurmountable challenge, and who is completely and utterly unable to properly articulate any emotions.

This does, in fact, correspond to the outward behaviour of many boys in Black Swan Green, but the reasons for this are completely different from what one Dr. Leonard Sax and his ilk would have us believe. Of course, by explaining this in essentialist terms you’re basically telling any boy who doesn’t fit the mould, “You’re a freak of nature”. Jason most certainly doesn’t fit the mould: not only does he have feelings and is perfectly capable of verbalising them, but – shock of shocks! – he writes poetry in his spare time. He publishes his poetry in the parish journal under a different name (of course), and takes every precaution not to be outed as anything other than a “normal” boy.

But eventually Something Happens, something that makes Jason break one of the unwritten rules of boyhood, and as a result he’s made to feel like an outsider (even more so than before, that is) and constantly bullied. David Mitchell’s portray of the culture of traditional masculinity at work is absolutely brilliant. Believing that men still very much have the upper hand in the world when it comes to political, economic and social power does not, of course, equate saying that their lives are always peachy and that masculinity isn’t also full of limits and narrow corners and little dangerous areas that need to be navigated with caution. Black Swan Green is a good reminder of that.

Bits I liked:
Kids who’re really popular get called by their first names, so Nick Yew’s always just ‘Nick’. Kids who’re a bit popular like Gilbert Swinyard have sort of respectful nicknames like ‘Yardy’. Next down are kids like me who call each other by our surnames. Below us are kids with piss-take nicknames like Moran Moron or Nicholas Briar who’s Knickerless Bra. It’s all ranks, being a boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard, just ‘Swinyard’, he’d kick my face in. Or if I called Moron ‘Dean’ in front of everyone, it’d damage my own standing. So you’ve got to watch out.

People’re a nestful of needs. Dull needs, sharp needs, bottomless-pit needs, flash-in-the-pan needs, needs for things you can’t hold, needs for things you can. Adverts know this. Shops know this. Specially in arcades, shop’re deafening. I’ve got what you want! I’ve got what you want! I’ve got what you want! But walking down Regent’s Arcade, I noticed a new need that’s normally so close up you never know it’s there. You and your mum need to like each other. Not love, but like.

‘Now. Apologists for gypsies will inevitably drone, “What do you have against these people?” I say, “How much time have you got? Vagrancy. Theft. Sanitation. Tuberculosis…” I missed what he said next, thinking how the villagers wanted the gypsies to be gross, so the grossness of what they’re not acts as a stencil for what the villagers are.
Reviewed at:
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Presenting Lenore

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35 comments:

  1. Great review Nymeth! :) It's been a while since I read Black Swan Green and now you've made me want to pick it up again...

    You also made me wonder whether I should give Paddy Clarke hahaha another try? I started it ages ago but got so irritated by the main character I stranded.

    A book I'd like to recommend to you now is Blacklands, by Belinda Bauer. More of the same topic but such a different story -- and a real whirlwind. I just finished it yesterday and I KNOW I'll remember it clearly on December 31st!

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  2. I would like to read something by Mitchell at some time. I'm glad you found this a worthwhile read.

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  3. What a great review! My husband read this one a while back and loved it. I should hunt it out.

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  4. I'd never heard of this book until the post when you asked everyone what you should read while you were home, and even then I didn't go look into it. I'm very glad you took everyone's advice and read it, because it sounds really incredible. Really incredible. And maybe hitting a little close to home these days--but then that's just all the more reason to read it.

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  5. This sounds like it gives the reader a lot to think about. Reading your review makes me so glad I'm past my adolescence.

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  6. I never really considered reading this until now... great quotes!

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  7. I was just about to type exactly what JoAnn just said. I really wasn't planning on read this . . . now I think I might.

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  8. I've been meaning to read David Mitchell for a long time, perhaps I'll start with this one. :) Good to know you enjoyed it!

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  9. Your reason for loving it, is the reason I didn't like it. I grew up during that time and experienced a similar world to him. I was an 80s girl living with the issues of the Falklands and the pain of horrible bullies at school. I went to school with boys like these. So when I started reading this book, it hit a nerve. I never finished it.

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  10. I agree - Middle School is just the worst! I'm convinced Dante went to one before writing The Inferno.

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  11. I think I added Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha to my mental list after reading Black Swan Green, but I never got around to it. Thanks for reminding me of it. Perhaps this is the year.

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  12. I bought this book awhile ago, and haven't made the time for it yet. It sounds like it's an excellent read, and the fact that it seals with an adolescent male going through the process of growing up holds much appeal to me. My son is at this stage, and any book that might help me relate to him is always welcome to my eyes. I am going to have to read Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha as well. Great review, Ana. I better check this one out sooner rather than later!

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  13. I'm going to come back and read this properly once I've actually read the book! Glad that you enjoyed it though:)

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  14. Knickerless Bra -- seriously, how do British schoolchildren think of these nicknames? I have never heard of a nation of schoolchildren more sickeningly inventive with cruel nicknames than the Brits! I had a flatmate named Felicity who got called Toilet because Felicity / Facility / Toilet. What? Who would ever think of that??

    David Mitchell's on my list for this year. I'm trying to read more books by men, as in 2010 I read three books by women to every one by men. Eek! I'm unbalanced!

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  15. I loved Black Swan Green and am now reading his Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Completely different, but just as good so far!

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  16. You make this book sound really compelling. Last year I discovered the joys of David Mitchell, so I am certainly intrigued by this one since I remember it being touted as YA (perhaps because of the time it focuses on?) which is not my genre of choice. Sounds really wonderful, and I love that it has emotional continuity if not narrative!

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  17. Gnoe: You're not the first to tell me they had trouble getting into Paddy Clarke, but I just loved it! So I'm going to have to vote yes to another try :P Thank you for recommending Blacklands! I don't think I'd heard of it before and it does sound awesome.

    Amy: Supposedly this is the more "conventional" of his books. I want to try Cloud Atlas next!

    litlove: Yes you should! I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did if you do.

    Debi: A LOT of this would ring familiar, yes :( But I think you'd love it.

    Kathy: Reading it made me glad of that as well!

    JoAnn and Beth F: I'm happy to hear I've made you reconsider!

    Heather: It was my first Mitchell and it did seem a perfect intro!

    Vivienne: I understand - I don't think I'd enjoy being reminded of my own middle school experience too vividly either :\

    Jill: Ha - he must have, yes :P

    Charley: You're welcome! I hope you enjoy it.

    Zibilee: They're both sad books, but I think you'll be glad to have read them, yes.

    Sakura: Looking forward to your thoughts when you read it!

    Jenny: I know! They're the evil geniuses of nickname creation.

    Jenclair: I've heard wonders about that one as well! I must read more Mitchell.

    Steph: The last thing I want to do is scare you away, but it did remind me of a lot of the YA I've read and loved. But then I don't see YA as a genre at all, but as a marketing niche :P

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  18. Your post reinforces for me that this could have been a novel I loved, but was one I read at the wrong time so felt just ok about. The excerpts you pulled reminded me of something I *did* really like about it (and like about most Mitchell I've read), which is that the narrative voice and the voices of the other characters were so convincing. I really believed in the world Jason inhabited; despite the book's episodic structure the tapestry of Black Swan Green (the town) was rich and real-seeming. And your points about gender and non-normative behavior are insightful as well. Also the treatment of war hysteria was, as I recall, pretty spot-on.

    Hmm. If I ever feel interested in coming-of-age stories again, maybe I'll give this a re-read.

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  19. So glad you loved it. *goes on about business, relieved*

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  20. This one is on my library list for books to read after the TBR dare. So is Delusions of Gender, I can't wait to read that one!

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  21. Oh, dear. I started this review thinking it was about the book that Black Swan movie with the lesbian killer ballerina... (at least, I *think* that is the plot of the movie?) Clearly, I was completely, somewhat hilariously wrong.

    Once I got over that little speed bump, I realized this book appeals to me much more than the plot of the Black Swan movie. I really like books written about daily struggles that people must face and overcome. I don't want to call them "quiet" books because that is silly- we all encounter daily struggles and I don't think any one of us would dismiss them as small or quiet ones. It's just life, and it's nice when an author is able to confront people's everyday lives with such grace and sympathy as it seems Mitchell did here. In a way, it reminds me of Millen Brand's The Outward Room because of that.

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  22. OH! I just had to jump in here and say Aarti, Black Swan the movie is so much more than that! It's a bit weird, sure but I'm still thinking about it a week later! (it's really about our internal selves and the creation of art)

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  23. I just finished listening to this on audio, and it was brilliant that way, too. Terrific review. :)

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  24. I thought this was a great coming-of-age story. I thought it was maybe over the top, but who knows, maybe boys are really like that!

    Thanks for linking to my review.

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  25. Black Swan Green has been on my TBR for ages, but someone it never really was a priority. What made you pick it up now?

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  26. Ugh, middle school...so glad that's over! I have yet to read one of Mitchell's novels. The only one I've ever really heard much about is Cloud Atlas, which greatly intrigues me. It's nice to hear about another of his that's good!

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  27. Haha, thanks, Amy! I think I will get it on rental :-)

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  28. I always tell my college students that if they have nothing else to be grateful for in their lives, they should be grateful for having survived middle school and never having to go back....

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  29. Cloud Atlas is on my nightstand unread. Once I finally get to it, this one sounds like a good one to pick up. It might be uncomfortable remembering the angst-ridden days of middle school, but it sounds worth it.

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  30. I guess it really is time to read my first Mitchell this year, isn't it? I doubt if it will be Black Swan Green, but it does sound like a book I eventually would like to read. And yes, Middle School is absolutely the hardest time I've gone through too.

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  31. Wonderful review! I love the "need" like. This book has been on my tbr for a very long time. I must get to it!

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  32. I love this book with an irrational passion. So much so that I almost didn't read your review out of feat that you might not have liked it.

    I can see how you'd like it with Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha which I also loved. Both are wonderful, insightful accounts into a certain type of boyhood.

    I'd love to see someone devote the same level of talent to an account of the bully's childhood. What's it all like for them? Trouble is, those boys don't typically grow up to be writers, I guess.

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  33. I have Cloud Atlas on request at the library (because of your review a few years ago, you know!). It will be a little while still (there were 100 people ahead of me when I first got on) so maybe I'll hunt for this one in the meantime. I'm intrigued by your review and by the array of comments about the book! I actually want to read these two before I go for his latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is the one I'm really anxious to read. I do enjoy how you compare it to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha, which is another novel I've been meaning to read. Lovely review, Nymeth!

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  34. I really loved this one. I found myself rooting for Jason to find his footing in life. He was such a sweet character.

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  35. This has been in my TBR pile a bit too long. I must get to it soon. Your review has me wanting to start it soon.

    BTW...Hope you are now feeling better :)

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