Guest Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

August 22, 2013 / 4 Comments / Review, Uncategorized

Hey, everyone! Today is a special day, because you’re getting a review from my husband, Evan!

In case you don’t know the background…Evan is a very smart sci-fi, film, and comic book aficionado who usually reads literary stuff like Michael Chabon and Salman Rushdie. Recently, he read and reviewed Red Moon by Benjamin Percy for MYAL. 

This time, he’s checking out a YA novel written by acclaimed British author David Mitchell – you might know him as “that guy who wrote Cloud Atlas.” Take it away, Evan (gifs courtesy of me again)!

Black Swan Green
Author: David Mitchell (website | facebook)

Publisher: Random House
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Publication Date: April 11, 2006
Evan’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an exquisitely observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys’ games on a frozen lake; of ‘nightcreeping’ through the summer backyards of strangers; of the tabloid-fueled thrills of the Falklands War and its human toll; of the cruel, luscious Dawn Madden and her power-hungry boyfriend, Ross Wilcox; of a certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an elderly bohemian emigré who is both more and less than she appears; of Jason’s search to replace his dead grandfather’s irreplaceable smashed watch before the crime is discovered; of first cigarettes, first kisses, first Duran Duran LPs, and first deaths; of Margaret Thatcher’s recession; of Gypsies camping in the woods and the hysteria they inspire; and, even closer to home, of a slow-motion divorce in four seasons.

Pointed, funny, profound, left-field, elegiac, and painted with the stuff of life, Black Swan Green is David Mitchell’s subtlest and most effective achievement to date.


Whatever criticisms I may have, the most important thing to take away from this review is that I really liked Jason Taylor, the 13-year old protagonist and narrator of David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green.

On the one hand, Mitchell has not exactly taken a risk with the character of Jason Taylor – everything about him elicits sympathy from the reader, almost by design. Jason is a bullied, misunderstood, extremely bright boy from Black Swan Green, a small town in the West Midlands of England. His parents don’t get along, and he suffers from severe anxiety (beyond the normal 13-year old variety), which manifests itself as a debilitating stammer that Jason has nicknamed “The Hangman.” Oh yeah, and he writes poetry under the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar.

How could anyone not like Jason Taylor? He’s the one you always root for. The underdog, the outcast, wise beyond his years, the quiet loner who’s more than he seems, the small town kid with big dreams, etc., etc.

On the other hand, Mitchell’s writing does not feel manipulative, and Jason’s voice is mostly very genuine. In fact, the tragedy of Jason’s situation is that, despite how sympathetic he is to the reader, he has nobody in his life to let him know what a great person he really is, because he spends most of his time trying to avoid being noticed at all:

Picked on kids act invisible to reduce the chances of being noticed and picked on. Stammerers act invisible to reduce the chances of being made to say something we can’t. Kids whose parents argue act invisible in case we trigger another skirmish. The Triple Invisible Boy, that’s Jason Taylor. Even I don’t see the real Jason Taylor much these days, ‘cept for when we’re writing a poem…

The story is told in 13 standalone chapters, spanning 13 months starting in January 1982, the month of Jason’s 13th birthday. Everything is strictly from Jason’s perspective, and very clearly coloured by his own anxiety about life. He is most definitely an unreliable narrator, and in certain sequences it is impossible to distinguish reality from fantasy.

Like Ted Mosby?

Some of the individual chapters – my favourite ones – deal with Jason’s attempts to avoid humiliation and hide his stammer, especially from his schoolmates, who live in the brutally hierarchical social structure of teenagerhood. Jason is forced to navigate through this world with The Hangman constantly waiting to destroy him with its commandments, which include:

· Thou shalt strangle Taylor when he is nervous about stammering
· Thou shalt ambush Taylor when he is not nervous about stammering
· Once Taylor is “Stutterboy” in the eyes of the world, he is yours

There are also a number of chapters that are more about showing how Jason interacts with an adult world that can be just as hypocritical and unforgiving as the schoolyard. Unfortunately, while these chapters still work really well as standalone stories, they massively slow down the pace of the novel as a whole. I noticed on Goodreads that a lot of people who gave Black Swan Green bad reviews stopped reading the book in the middle, I suspect due to this pacing issue. If you do decide to read it, take my word for it – the book really picks up again in the last three or four chapters, which are quite wonderful.

Mitchell seems to have put a lot of thought into how would Jason tell his story? What would come out of the pen of an intelligent, isolated, anxious teenager who sat down to write about his own life? Sometimes, our poet friend really nails it, and comes up with a poignant, though still age-appropriate, insight into a situation. For example, after gaining new respect for his mother when she handles a thief in her store with brilliant strategic precision, Jason writes:

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…. But walking down Regents Arcade this afternoon, 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.

Other times, Jason comes off as just trying way too hard to be poetic, leading to groan inducing deep thoughts like, “Dead things show you what you’ll be too one day,” “Photos’re better than nothing, but things’re better than photos ‘cause the things themselves were part of what was there,” and “Do spirals end? Or just get so tiny your eyes can’t follow anymore?”

While I understand that this was a deliberate aspect of Jason’s characterization – and sometimes it is quite endearing and sincere – Mitchell uses the device much too frequently, ending almost every section with one of Jason’s forced attempts at a profound observation or conclusion. I was distracted by it, and it took me out of the story and character.

The best moments are when Jason isn’t trying at all, and just writes with his emotions. After watching one of his parents smile, having won one of their petty, passive aggressive arguments, Jason writes: “Me, I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right.”

Almost as good as Dawson crying. But Darryl is cooler. 

He’s right.

The Final Word

Although far from being amazing, I definitely recommend Black Swan Green for both teenagers and adults. I’m very happy that I got to experience a year in Jason Taylor’s life, through the eyes of Jason Taylor himself.

Thanks, Ev! This review reminded me a lot of my feelings about ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell – are there other books about bullied, poetic kids that came to mind when you read this? Are you interested in reading BLACK SWAN GREEN or any other Mitchell books? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to let Evan know what you think of his review!

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4 responses to “Guest Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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