David Mitchell has fast become one of my favourite authors, and I’ve only read two of his five novels. Perhaps his most famous work, Cloud Atlas, sold 40,000 copies in hardback, won four major literary awards and was shortlisted for a further six. It’s a sprawling 600-page treatise on the human condition told in six loosely overlapping novellas that span centuries and genres. It’s immensely complex and even heavy going in places, so vivid are the different narratives, and so slowly does it reveal its overarching themes.
Black Swan Green, on the other hand, at least appears to be a much simpler work. Narrated in the first person by 13-year-old Jason Taylor, it tells of a year (specifically, 1982) in the life of a (fictional) village in rural Worcestershire. During this year Jason experiences bullying, his parents’ troubled marriage, the Falklands War, his first kiss and other traumas of adolescence.
David Mitchell is basically the same age as me, born in early 1969. This book must be at least partly based on his experiences growing up in the 1980s. It connected with me for plenty of reasons. And before I get into them, this is what I looked like in 1982…
Much as I’d love you to read the rest of this, if you think you might want to read Black Swan Green, please be aware that there are SPOILERS throughout what follows…
Black Swan Green unfolds over 13 episodic chapters, basically covering the year of 1982. The thing about the titular village is that while it does have a green, there are no swans. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that David Mitchell is inviting us to wonder what else his book is trying to tell us.
Indeed, despite the articulate internal narration of Jason Taylor, much of his storytelling betrays the innocence of youth. Scenes and arguments are described where we can sense the deeper meaning and lasting impacts, but they are left to our imagination.
On the flipside, appearances are often deceptive. Jason’s stammer makes him withdrawn, as he shields and guards his feelings, unable to express them outwardly except under the name of Eliot Bolivar in the Parish Newsletter. The social hierarchy of cliques and gangs seems rigid until it is blown apart in the last chapters. The village has several rotten cores – from the resentment of new housing developments to the travelling Gypsy community – that would go unnoticed at first glance, but are captured vividly through Jason’s observation.
The period detail is tremendous, with references to songs, toys, television and films that are all spot-on. More importantly, BSG captures the how quickly and unexpectedly Cool becomes Uncool, how slang is current then old-hat. I especially remember exclamations like ace!, ace-doss and epic!, and the nervous, tense anticipation (and often disappointment) at the school disco.
The social strata in the classroom and playground is brutally described – like being in the army. Having a nickname (however cruel) is better than not having one and being referred to solely by your surname (social death). The gangs and cliques are all-powerful, and Jason’s delight at passing the initiation to join the Spooks is short-lived.
There’s a great deal in BSG about learning to express yourself, especially as a teenager. Jason’s father and teachers often shout down the children and impose their will, their world-view and their language. But Jason is trying to find his voice, both as a writer (through Eliot Bolivar) but also to physically control and mentally master his often crippling stammer. He calls it ‘Hangman’: the debilitating fear it brings him is immediate and visceral, forcing him to think ahead, avoid words and consciously change what he wants to say. It prevents him from expressing himself, from being himself.
A speech-therapist friend of mine has indicated this behaviour and feelings are all-too-common among stammerers, and a recent interview between Simon Mayo and Colin Firth about the latter’s now Oscar-nominated role in The King’s Speech reiterates the authenticity of Mitchell’s writing.
Ultimately, Black Swan Green is a coming-of-age tale par excellence. The start of the book depicts a relatively stable, peaceful village, albeit with some grimy undercurrents threatening… Jason and his sister (in fact many of the children) seem to ignore or shrug off their parents’ arguments; they develop ways to cope with the bullies; they accept and almost revel in the patriotic media reporting of the Falklands War, and the fabled recession seems to be about other people. Jason’s parents’ marriage almost seems a 1980s Thatcherite symbol of hard work & family values.
Except it’s not. Just as Black Swan Green has no swans, the secrets beneath its surface are raw and cruel.
The marriage breaks down as his Dad’s affair is revealed, and his mum seeks to break out of that stifling relationship to fulfil her own ambitions (she becomes a marvellous success) and, perhaps most personally for Jason, his older sister Julia leaves home for university.
Jason eventually exposes the cruelty and bullying among the children of BSG, but this is more sinisterly mirrored by the adults’ racism and hostility towards a proposed Gypsy/Travellers site. The meeting in the village hall is packed, angry and violent, but when the fire alarm goes off, there is mass panic. The truth of the Falklands War is made real as a hero of the kids gets killed. Even when Jason spitefully fails to return a bully’s wallet, there are have stunningly unforseen and terrible consequences.
Perhaps the most personal way Black Swan Green connected with me was through Le Grand Meaulnes. I studied this book as part of my French ‘A’ Level. Written almost 100 years ago, it tells of (and is narrated by) a shy boy in an isolated village, whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of an older boy – the titular Meaulnes. There are several almost heroic adventures and episodes, often told with dreamlike reverence and nostalgic longing.
The episodic chapters deal with several adventures told similarly in a dream-like style. He seeks out a bridlepath that tunnels under the Malvern Hills, during which he secretly spies on two older teens having sex. He flees from a mythical madman who lives deep in the woods, he discovers the vicarage and a strange old lady within who talks about poetry. The Goose Fair and the end-of-year disco are related in magical tones.
Jason keeps wishing he was someone else, keeps looking for heroes until he himself becomes one, throwing open the dark secrets of the school playground. By the end of the year the adventures are shattered as Jason’s family life is in pieces. However, unlike Francois Seurat in Le Grand Meaulnes, who still yearns to recapture the past and imagines his friend on further escapades, Jason knows that the end of 1982 is not really the end of anything.