David Mitchell is surely one of the best British novelists writing today and his latest novel Black Swan Green strengthens his claim to that title. The novel’s predecessor, the highly acclaimed Cloud Atlas – an intricately woven tale spanning multiple time periods and different narrative voices – was a truly captivating read, a unique balance of the real and the fantastic. Black Swan Green displays the same intricacy, allowing a truly human and heartfelt story to be told through a conventional artifice. In this novel, the balance is not between reality and fantasy but a carefully explicated portait of a young boy’s struggle between social conformity and individual expression, set underneath the glassy archetypal nostalgia of the early 1980s. The struggle and the setting, the factual and the poetic are written with such a sense of stablility that Mitchell’s prose is simultaneously radiant, amusing and resolute.
A painful minute went by. Green is made of yellow and blue, nothing else, but when you look at green, where’ve the yellow and the blue gone? Somehow this is to do with Moran’s dad. Somehow this is to do with everyone and everything. But too many things’d’ve’ gone wrong if I’d tried to say this to Moran.
Life is not easy for Jason Taylor: it’s hard enough turning thirteen – threatening bullies, those mysterious things called girls, family discord – it’s even harder when that comes with a stammer and you’re a reluctant poet. As Jason attempts to conceal his stammer, it leads to other problems: use of ‘over-elaborate’ replacement words, untold anxieties and low self-esteem. Jason’s stammer becomes fictionalised as the director of missing letters: Hangman. This imaginary character has his own codes of behaviour and has an incredible power over Jason’s life.
The only way to outfox Hangman is to think one sentence ahead, and if you see a stammer word coming up, alter your sentence so you won’t need to use it. Of course, you have to do this without the other person you’re talking to catching on. Reading dictionaries like I do helps you do these ducks and dives, but you do have to remember who you’re talking to. (If I was speaking to another thirteen-year-old and said the word ‘melancholy’ to avoid stammering on ‘sad’, for example, I’d be a laughing stock, ’cause kids aren’t s’posed to use adult words like ‘melancholy’. Not at Upton upon Severn Comprehensive, anyway.)
There is a sincere nature to the book and it is not surprising to learn that a large amount of Mitchell’s own adolescent tribulations are recorded here. Like Jason, he too grew up in a small village in Worcestershire and was a stammerer (not a stutterer, an important distinction), adopting his own rules of speech to manage his problem. It is this skill with words that has enabled Mitchell to develop such proficiency interweaving different registers for his narrators within his novels. His forthcoming novel will demonstrate this skill further, opening up issues about the perceptions and misperceptions in the encounter of cultures. Black Swan Green is an acutely observed account of the transition between childhood and adolescence set against a vibrant nostalgic background, with a sharp injection of humour and a vivid evocation of life in a backwater village in the 1980s. Mitchell’s beautiful poetic and powerful prose exposes this transitionary period for its strains and difficulties, asserting the importance of the individual and in making your own rules.
Posted by Jen Tomkins