David Mitchell – Black Swan Green

Posted on | August 5, 2010 | 13 Comments

David Mitchell, Black Swan GreenAbout five years back, with the launch of the iPod Shuffle, Apple declared “random is the new order” to the world, as “life is random” so we should “give chance a chance.”

What does any of this have to do with Black Swan Green? Well, nothing, really! However, it does have a lot to do with the way I’ve approached the works of David Mitchell – Unlike some book bloggers (e.g. Kerry), I haven’t read his works in any kind of order; just as and when I got my hands on one of his books. I never had a chance though. I didn’t even know who David Mitchell was (yes, I was living in a black hole of sorts) until one of my friends shoved number9dream in my hands, and insisted I read it. From the opening line, which I can still repeat off the top of my head, I was hooked. The rest, as they say, is history.

And so, I started my fourth book by David Mitchell eagerly, not quite knowing what to expect. I knew it was a coming-of-age story, and I half wondered if it would be similar to the surreal number9dream, or well – I didn’t really have an alternative.

Black Swan Green is much more of a “traditional” coming-of-age story. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would have assumed it was Mitchell’s debut novel – not because of the quality of writing (seriously, I don’t think you can fault Mitchell’s quality of writing!), but more because the book was a lot more conventional than I’d have expected, specially considering it was released on the back of Cloud Atlas.

It’s 1982, the year of the Falklands War. Havoc is wreaking on that front, but thirteen year old Jason is fighting another battle: against bullies, against a stammering problem he can’t seem to get rid of, and harbouring a secret that might make him the laughing stock of the school: a secret desire to be a poet. Closer to home, his sister refers to him as “thing,” and his parents’ marriage is rocky – thirteen, it’s a “wonderful miserable age!”

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 going.

As opposed to a linear narrative, this book is essentially a set of snapshots in Jason’s life as a thirteen year old, focusing on the events that help him mature, as he realises some hard truths about life, be it about his friend’s father’s alcoholism

“[…]Tell you what it’s like, it’s like this whiny shitty nasty weepy man who isn’t my dad takes my dad over for however long the bender lasts, but only I – and Mum and Kelly and Sally and Max – know that it isn’t him. The rest of the world doesn’t know that, see. They just say, Frank Moran showing his true colours, that is. But it ain’t” Moran twisted his head at me. “But it is. But it ain’t.[…]”

or, about the cruelty of war, and how it ruins lives

War’s an auction where whoever can pay most in damage and still be standing wins.

Okay, maybe that’s a little too profound for a thirteen year old, but the point still stands! Speaking of profundity, how’s this:

I’ve never listened to music lying down. Listening’s reading if you close your eyes. Music’s a wood you walk through.

And then, you have some mixed with a desperate call for anger management:

Me, I want to 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 important than being right.

Oh! To be thirteen again…

I enjoyed this book, and the various episodes of Jason’s life, despite the fact that at times, he really did seem older and wiser than his years (above excerpts withstanding). It was an easy read, but delightful at the same time, and it was a story I could relate to – being someone born in the eighties myself! I got most of the music references, be it Duran Duran, Beatles, Sex Pistols, Joy Division or the infamous “Do the Locomotion”. It took me back a long way, and I was reminiscing away about my life and how things were about a decade ago! I could identify with Jason’s preoccupations and concerns at times, and I sympathised with him on the whole rivalry with the sibling – been there, done that! My brother and I couldn’t possibly be closer now. Oh, how times change…

Have you read any David Mitchell? Any favourites? I still have Ghostwritten to go, so I’m really looking forward to that.

Also, do you have any other favourite coming-of-age stories? I do love reading them – they almost always take me away to a simpler easier time. Do you feel the same as well about comfort reads?

Just as an aside for you David Mitchell fans out there who’ve read Cloud Atlas as well:

Madame Crommelynck, the daughter of the famous composer in Cloud Atlas, makes an appearance in this book, when she attempts to introduce Jason to European literature. She plays Robert Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Sextet for the teenager, who is awed by it (see quote above). I loved that bit! Any idea if there are any more references to other characters from his previous books that I’ve missed?


13 Responses to “David Mitchell – Black Swan Green”

  1. Kerry
    August 5th, 2010 @ 1:27 am

    Great review. I have now skipped ahead to The Thousand Autumns, so chance is taking over with me too. But, I am looking forward to Black Swan Green, particularly as I am interested in how it compares/contrasts with Coetzee’s Boyhood and Youth (both of which I have read in the last year) and Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (which I am reading now).

    I like coming of age stories too. Maybe that’s why my favorite Dickens has always been Great Expectations.

    Anyway, great review. You have me chomping at the bit of my TBR pile.

  2. Natalie @ Coffee and a Book Chick
    August 5th, 2010 @ 1:46 am

    I have not read any David Mitchell works, but there are a few that I’m itching to get my hands on.

  3. charley
    August 5th, 2010 @ 2:55 am

    This was my first David Mitchell in 2007, and I loved it. I went on to read Cloud Atlas, which I also liked. That’s cool about the Madame Crommelynck connection – I did not notice it when I was reading. As for favorite coming of age stories, I’ll go with Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I read that for the first time in 2007, and I felt transported into Francie Nolan’s world.

  4. Kathy (The Literary Amnesiac)
    August 5th, 2010 @ 4:09 am

    I haven’t read any Mitchell yet, but he’s on my TBR list. I think my local library actually has this book!! (You would be amazed, too, if you knew how lacking this poor old library is).

  5. Mish
    August 5th, 2010 @ 7:50 am

    It’s only been very recently that I’ve started recognizing Mitchell’s name and associating him with Cloud Atlas. I’m slow sometimes.

    Steven Barnes’s Lion’s Blood and Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn are long-time top favourites I read every few years. I think you’d like them.

  6. Joanna
    August 5th, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    No, I think she’s the only reference to his other books. I loved that she was there too, somehow it was like seeing an old friend. I think Black Swan Green was my least favorite of his books, I guess because it’s the most normal. I have A Thousand Autumns waiting for me now and I can’t wait!

  7. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    August 5th, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    I loved Black Swan Green. The reminiscing was the best part. I imagine that those born in a different era wouldn’t find it as interesting.

    I’m sure you’ll love Ghostwritten – it is similar to Cloud Atlas in style. I’m so pleased that you love Mitchell as much as I do.

  8. Sarah
    August 7th, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    I have this on my now infamous TBR pile. Perhaps I should reconsider my bad attitude?

    I took against this title, with no good reason, because I haven’t read any David Mitchell and I was so keen to start with Cloud Atlas. But it was Black Swan Green that turned up. (I know. I sometimes wonder how old I am too :( )

    Coming of age is appealing (if well done), I think for the reasons you cite. I won’t abandon those unfairly despised volumes quite yet…

  9. Lija (writer's pet)
    August 7th, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

    Count me in the “skipping ahead” group – I’ll also be reading Thousand Autumns before anything else, despite many persistent recommendations this year from Brit bloggers!

    Gotta love Madeleine L’Engle for coming of age stuff.

  10. claire (kiss a cloud)
    August 18th, 2010 @ 7:32 am

    Mm.. I’m not a coming-of-age fan any longer but David Mitchell could be the exception. Haven’t read him yet but seeing as you’ve been devouring him, I really must get to Cloud Atlas already. I want to read that and Jacob de Zoet..

  11. anothercookiecrumbles
    August 20th, 2010 @ 1:59 am

    @ Kerry : Hmm, I really must read both the Coetzees you’ve mentioned. I had Fortress of Solitude around as well, but can’t find it anymore. My favourite Dickens remains Oliver Twist…

    Enjoy Thousand Autumns! I found it to be a slightly difficult read, although I did think it was worth it.

    @ Natalie : I love his works! Really hope you do too.

    @ charley : I’ve not read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – I’m going to add it to my wishlist! Thanks for the recommendation. I’m hoping you’ll be reading the other Mitchells, as I’ll be looking out for your thoughts on them.

    @ Kathy (The Literary Amnesiac) : Haha, read it soon! I’m a massive Mitchell fan (bet you couldn’t tell), so I’d love to see your thoughts on his works. I know what you mean about lacking libraries – they’re a tad disappointing (understating much?).

    @ Mish : Must check both those books out. This must be like the nth time I’ve heard you mention Cloud Atlas – really hope you read it soon!

    @ Joanna : Know what you mean about seeing an old friend. I read it, and went, “hey. hang on, I know you from somewhere…” Hope you enjoyed Thousand Autumns… I’m still to read Ghostwritten, so am going to figure out my favourites/least favourites after that!

    @ Jackie (Farm Lane Books) : I am too, specially as a lot of our tastes clash! I’m looking forward to Ghostwritten, and hopefully, will read it before the year is out. You make a good point about people from a different era not appreciating the book as much…. maybe I’ll have to give it to my mum to read, and see what she says?!

    @ Sarah : Oh, don’t discard the poor Mitchell! :( Give it just one chance, and maybe – just maybe – you’ll love it! Cloud Atlas is a great book though, whereas Black Swan Green is “good” – so start with Cloud Atlas, and keep this on the not-so-despised TBR pile (I’m sure you have one?).

    @ Lija (writer’s pet) : Not read anything by her either!!! Jeez, must change that! Enjoy Thousand Autumns!!

    @ claire (kiss a cloud) : I really look forward to seeing your thoughts on both of them. Think you’ll love Cloud Atlas, so here’s hoping you get to it quickly!

  12. Patti's Pages
    August 26th, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

    I’m becoming a Richard Powers addict myself, but I liked Cloud Atlas and might have to give another Mitchell book a try. Also, I’m about to read Callanan’s Cloud Atlas, for completeness.

  13. Parrish
    August 30th, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    Hi, I read his books in the order I came across them, so chance played a massive part, along with the libraries sorting system (chance again?). So with me it’s so far – Cloud Atlas, Number9dream & this one. Not read any others yet, although his latest is in my TBR.

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