Review: ‘Black Swan Green’ by David Mitchell

Adolescence. If there’s something else like that time in your life, I’ve never heard of it. When is there another period that alternates between being excruciatingly horrible and exhilaratingly brilliant? Awkwardness, attraction, body changes. Crushes, bullies, first kisses. Faces that haven’t caught up to noses yet. Boys are tiny, girls terrifying and towering. And neither sex understands the other. A kid’s status can change overnight from cool (superhero underwear!) to outcast (superhero underwear!) without any warning. Main theme from this age: pay attention or die.

Maybe I haven’t read that many coming-of-age novels (or Bildungsroman, as I have learned today), but when I think of them, I always assumed that these types of books were either moody in an “adults don’t understand me or my generation at all so I am going to sulk and smoke filterless cigarettes” kind-of-a-way or something abhorrent happens that  knocks the main character for a loop or otherwise takes them on a journey that most people never have to experience. I found out that I am wrong, that it really can be any kind of book where the kid just grows up. So, yes, this book is a coming-of-age novel; but it is so much more because it also flies below the radar. The tales, the pacing and the discoveries aren’t really profound. They just are the truth that we all experience in one way or another.

Jason Taylor is a new teen in Margaret Thatcher’s Faulkland Islands-era England. He lives in Black Swan Green, a village in Worcestershire, which is a place he considers to be the middle of nowhere. Plus, there are no swans. He finds himself to be uninteresting, uncool and desperately trying to stay below the radar of his fellow classmates that would crucify him if they knew he stuttered. There’s a definite strata of kids, and certain things can get you lowered a peg or two. Like stuttering. Or having people know that you write poetry that’s published in the parish newsletter.

This is a story of thirteen. The struggles to be heard, wanting someone to like like you, trying to convince your parents that you aren’t a little kid anymore. Being respected (or, more accurately, not tortured) by your peers. Hoping that teachers would stop being tired sadists. Trying to make it through the day without embarrassing yourself, or worse, having everyone else see you embarrass yourself.

There is one chapter for each year of Jason’s life with a different tale each month: a sister leaves for college, an old lady giving a lesson in writing. Fights, loss of life, a first crush. Being comfortable in your own skin. Standing up for yourself, no matter what. Ordinary stories, really, but out of their “ordinariness” we find resonance and depth. And ourselves.

The first thing I wondered when I starting to write my review was the age of David Mitchell. Was this book autobiographical? Did he stutter like the main character, Jason Taylor? After a quick search on Google, I discovered that this tale is, indeed, semi-autobiographical. The author does stutter and he grew up in the area where the story takes place. Mr. Mitchell was born in 1969, so he was thirteen,  the same age as the protagonist, in 1982, the year the book takes place.

The book’s honesty is palpable. Wanting to hide something so you’re not different. Trying to keep from being lumped in with that group of kids that is the most scorned. Attempting to show some measure of cool, without being called out on it. In  other words, middle school. And even though quite a bit of the slang was new to me, it flavored this book and made it a truthful slice of life.

4 of 5 Stars (Based on Ink and Page’s Rating System)

Genres: Young Adult Fiction Contemporary
Ages: 14 and up
You might want to know: Occasional profanity, mild discussions of sex, drinking and drugs

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell was published April 11, 2006 by Random House.

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New York Times
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