Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
The narrator of Black Swan Green is an endearing thirteen-year-old poet with a stammer named Jason Taylor. The setting is a small town in Worchestershire, England in 1982, which sets the stage for an entire chapter on the Falklands war and lots of appropriate cultural references. The plot is episodic, with a structure almost like related short stories, except for a few narrative threads that run through the entire novel. A major theme is bullying and the way that Jason deals with a persistent group of tormentors in his school and neighborhood. Along the way, Jason encounters some unusual characters, deals with family drama, and learns some important Socratic-style lessons about poetry and secrets.
I remember putting this book on my list because someone compared it to Catcher in the Rye, but I don’t really see too many similarities between the books. They both have a first-person young male narrator and are about growing up, but that’s about it. There is so much more tenderness and so much less cynicism in Black Swan Green; the books’ tones are entirely different.
I really have to praise the language of this novel. It approached some big philosophical questions, and usually in a way that felt somewhat fresh, like putting a pretty inspirational carpe diem speech in the mouth of an older cousin urging young Jason to smoke his first cigarette. Jason’s wide-eyed, articulate, and apt observations about the people and the natural world around him are what set this novel apart. Here are just a few tastes of the quick descriptions of nature that I found so charming:
The melony sun dripped steamy brightness…Passing a stable, I peered into the hot manure-reeky dark (82).
Bluebells swarmed in pools of light where the sun got through the trees. The air smelt of them. Wild garlic smelt of toasted phlegm. Blackbirds sang like they’d die if they didn’t. Birdsong’s the thoughts of a wood. Beautiful, it was, but boys aren’t allowed to say “beautiful” ’cause it’s the gayest word around (92).
A bride and groom pose outside a flinty chapel. Bare twigs say it’s winter. The groom’s thin lips say, Look what I’ve got. A top hat, a cane, half fox. But the bride’s half lioness. Her smile’s the idea of a smile. She knows more about her new husband than he knows about her. Above the church door a stone lady gazes up at her stone knight. Flesh-and-blood people in photographs look at the camera, but stone people look through the camera straight at you (157).
Lyme Regis was a casserole of tourists. Everywhere smelt of suntan oil, hamburgers, and burnt sugar (168).
The coins in my caged fist rattled like magic bullets (169).